Archive for the ‘Reading Matter’ Category

Gotham Diary:
In 1937
19 July 2012

Thursday, July 19th, 2012


You will recall that Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities begins with a mistake. Distracted by an argument with his lover, Maria, Sherman McCoy misses the Manhattan-bound exit at the heart of the Triborough Bridge (which is, naturally, a complex of three bridges) and barrels on into the Bronx, where he simply takes the next exit in order to turn around. Getting back onto the highway turns out to be difficult, and, in a panic, Sherman drives recklessly enough to hit a kid in the street. Thus begins the downfall of this Master of the Universe.

The mistake is not Sherman’s however. Sherman, we are told, is a born-and-bred New Yorker. No one raised in the Metropolitan Area would dream of “taking the next exit.” That may work perfectly well in Nebraska, but any expectation that the next exit will be anything like the one that you just missed is utterly foreign to natives of these parts. The mistake was Tom Wolfe’s. Although Bonfire is an extremely compelling read — or was at the time — it betrays its outsider’s viewpoint at the very beginning, and is manifestly not the purveyor of secret knowledge that it claims to be.

Amor Towles’s The Rules of Civility is a much better book than The Bonfire of the Vanities, and every bit as compelling, but it is haunted by an air of fantasy that is just as sharp as the superficiality of Wolfe’s cluefulness. Narrated by Kathleen Kontent, the daughter of Russian immigrants, raised in Brighton Beach (but a Christian), The Rules of Civility is in many ways a dream about New York City on the eve of World War II, an era that comes easily to mind because Ralph Lauren spends so much money trying to convince us that we’re still living in it (and ought to dress accordingly). The fantasy — the unreal part — is not a matter of gaffes of the “next exit” order, but something more subtle.

It was in an ivory envelope embossed with a scallop shell. On the front, there was no stamp, but it was addressed in perfect calligraphy. I don’t think I had ever seen my name so beautifully inscribed. Each of the Ks stood an inch tall, their legs sweeping elegantly under the other letters, curling at the end like the toe of an Arabian shoe.

Inside, there was a card edged in gold. It was so think I had to rip the envelope to set it free. At the top was the same image of the scallop, while below were the time and date and the requesting of the honor of my company. It was an invitation to the Hollingsworth’s sprawling Labor Day affair. From a a few hundred miles at sea, another act of grace by the right fine Wallace Wolcott.

The fantasy is that people like Wallace Wolcott (a WASP paragon too fine to be played by anyone but Gary Cooper) would find this sort of thing interesting enough to describe. Unlike Kate, Wallace would have seen his name perfectly inscribed before he knew how to read. He would take perfect calligraphy for granted — there was until recently a well-known service that would fill out all the addresses on your wedding-invitation list.  The only comment that Wallace might make, assuming that Kate, in her enthusiasm, has not overlooked the detail, is that the Hollingsworths would surely have requested the honour of her company.


The Rules of Civility is such a well-packed book (although not an especially long one) that it is hard to believe that it takes place entirely within the space of a year, 1937. Whenever Kate would return to her flat on 11th Street, I’d be amazed that she was still living there, after all this…. time. The novel is full of lively characters and clearly-drawn scenes, and something is always happening. (New York City demonstrates that the “small town” effect requires a population of many millions.) The action on the surface is in perfect counterpoise to the mystery below, which is a romance between two people who are themselves mysteries. Our narrator is one of these people; she is a fine study in hiding-in-plain-sight. We know a few things about her — very few. We have no idea how she covered the socio-economic distance between Brighton Beach and the typing pool at a venerable Wall Street law firm. We have no idea how or where she acquired the wit and panache to get an important job at a (fictional) Condé Nast start-up. Kate seems to know that it’s best to keep most of her personal history under wraps; if she’s mysterious, it’s for reasons that she’d like to put behind her. Let me be clear that there is nothing fantastical about Kate’s career, improbable though it might seem. New York is the natural abode of many such mysterious people, and it would be wrong-headed to expect Amor Towles to take Dawn Powell’s skeptical scalpel to them.

The other mysterious person is Tinker Grey. He’s so mysterious that he seems always to be enveloped in a slight but photogenic fog. We meet him in the novel’s frame, at the Museum of Modern Art, where an exhibition of Walker Evan’s photographs has opened, in 1966. The photos were taken on the city’s subways, with a hidden camera. Tinker, rather wonderfully, turns out to be the subject of two of them. In one, he is gaunt but lively; in the other, prosperous but world-weary. As Kate knows, the latter picture must have been taken first. So: what happened to Tinker? How did he get flushed out of high life? And was he, despite everything, Kate’s first and greatest love? You will find out the answers to these questions, which Towles has the skill to make urgent, when you get to the end of The Rules of Civility. And you will almost certainly have a good time getting there.

This is a frankly elegiac book, a backward glance at the excitement and uncertainty of young people scrambling about the city. There is a finely-dampered sense of doom (Wallace Wolcott sails off to fight in the Spanish Civil War), of things coming to an end; but what is really coming to an end, of course, is youth, not a way of life. What’s over, at the end, is Kate’s innocence about the glamour of rich people’s lives. She marries one of thoese people, and finds happiness with him, but the awe that her tough-girl patina barely conceals at the beginning of the novel is evaporated by what 1937 has to teach her. The Rules of Civility would have been a better book — a truly great book, I suspect — if Amor Towles had written it in the third person, and not tugged at us to gape sympathetically at the bits and bobs of Red Book snazziness that — more or less attractively — litter Kate’s tale.

When dinner was over, I helped Wallace carry the gifts to the back pantry. Lining the hallway were photographs of family members smiling in enviable locales. There were grandparents on a dock, an uncle on skis, sisters riding sidesaddle. At the time it seemed a little odd, this back hall gallery; but running into a similar setup in similar hallways over the years, I eventually came to see it as endearingly WASPy. Because it’s an outward expression of that reserved sentimentality (for places as much as kin) that quietly permeates their version of existence. In Brighton Beach or on the Lower East Side, you were more apt to find a single portrait propped on a mantel behind dried flowers, a burning candle, and a generation of genuflection. In our households, nostalgia played a distant fiddle to acknowledgment of the sacrifices made by forebears on your behalf.

A third-person narrator could have told you more than Kate is willing to divulge, while recasting the pangs of envy so that you would not feel uppity for not sharing them.

As for mistakes of the “next exit” order, I did find a very small one. There have never been any “once tony brownstones” in Washington Square.  

Gotham Diary:
18 July 2012

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Pamela Werner seems to have been an interesting girl even before she was murdered in 1937 — almost certainly in a brothel near Peking’s Legation Quarter, almost certainly by a crew of Anglophone sportsmen led by an American dentist. Born, probably to a White Russian refugee in 1917, she was adopted two years later, at the Portuguese orphanage, by a once-prominent couple, E T C Werner and his wife, Gladys Nina née Ravenscroft. In 1922, the adoptive mother died of an overdose of Veronal, but the ensuing scandal yielded no evidence of foul play. (It was probably suicide.) Pamela grew up to be as pretty as the run of blonde Hollywood chorus girls of the day (if her pictures are any guide), and she chafed within the confines of her scholarly father’s respectable house. She seems to have been thrown out of almost every school she attended, and was still going to school when she died, at nearly 20. (To be precise, she was home on winter break.)

Four days before her death, Pamela Werner was photographed at Hartung’s, a studio photography shop in the Legation Quarter. She wore a stylish black evening gown, elegant sandals, and an expression of ironic disdain. It was not the outfit of a schoolgirl. Unremarkable in itself, the photograph tells a familiar story, once you know Pamela’s fate. It’s the story of a girl who yearns to be a sophisticated, independent woman, and who grabs a chance at it without understanding the terrible risks to which acting without family support expose any attractive young woman even to this day. She thinks that she can handle it. She is wrong.

The case of Pamela Werner’s murder was never officially solved. Pamela’s father, strangely passive during the early investigations, began an impassioned and arduous search for justice only when it became clear that Chinese and British officials were not going to identify the culprit or culprits responsible. Years later, Werner and the man whom Werner believed to be guilty were both interned in the same prison camp on the Shandong Peninsula. Other prisoners would remember Werner pointing a finger at that man, Wentworth Prentice, and saying, “You killed her. I know you killed Pamela. You did it.” This is how the movie version would begin. At the end, the scene would be replayed, and now we would see Prentice.

The story of the investigation into Pamela Werner’s death is an interesting one, because its many contingencies dangle from the strange state of China at in the twilight of the warlords, on the eve of Japanese occupation. Because the dead girl was found outside the Legation Quarter, the British authorities, such as they were, lacked effective jurisdiction. At the same time, there was a presumption that the suspect would be a criminal type. At one point, a broken-down former bodyguard of North American background, called Pinfold, was brought in for questioning, He was released, against the investigators’ urging, by a consul who insisted that the evidence against him was inadequate. Properly pursued, Pinfold would have led directly to the murderer, but the higher authorities instintively protected this man — it would be better to say that they protected themselves from finding out anything incriminating about him — and the trails of evidence were ignored, the connections left unmade.


At the end of Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, author Paul French tells us how he came to write it.

It was when I came across a photo of [Pamela], on a cold morning in the British Library’s newspaper archives in North London, that I knew her story had to be told. I started writing. And then, by chance, while tying up the loose ends of some research in Britain’s National Archive at Kew, I stumbled across an uncatalogued file in one of several dozen boxes of random correspondence sent from Peking during the years 1941-43. The letters in the file had been recorded, acknowledged, filed and forgotten. There were some 150 pages of close type, with handwriting added by the author in the margin.

It took a while to work out what it all was: the details of the private investigation E T C Werner had conducted after the official one was halted. Peking was by then occupied by the Japanese, yet Werner’s search uncovered more than the detectives had found; it answered questions that they had been unable to, settling nagging doubts and bringing more light than the official inquest ever did. It took these lost letters of Werner’s to bring Pamela’s murder into focus for me.

Perrhaps this would be the first scene.

As those paragraphs suggest, Paul French writes in a style that is both straightforward and supply atmospheric. There is nothing lurid about his tale, no heavy breathing — not even when, in the early pages, Pamela’s mutilated corpse must be described. French’s tone is, on the contrary, inclined to the understatement of film noir. There is much that can’t be known, especially the answer to the question, “What was Pamela Werner really like?” She was almost certainly not like someone who had murder coming; at the same time, she was pretty clearly defenseless once she stepped outside the confinement of propriety and accepted the invitation to a party that her father, had he known of it, would not have permitted her to attend. The setting is exotic; it was thought to be exotic at the time, by the expats who knew it up close. But the crime, far from opening a window on imaginative depravity, is the all-too-familiar confrontation of inexperience with lust and desperation. No: what makes the crime interesting is the fecklessness of the official investigation. To call it a “cover-up” would be a gross exaggeration. But it was infected with all of the ambiguities and misunderstandings that made Beijing into yet another Chinatown.

Possibly because of a superficial resemblance between Werner and Edmund Backhouse, subject of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Hermit of Peking, I’m going to have to hunt down that very wild “Old China” story.


Gotham Diary:
Captain Kirke
9 July 2012

Monday, July 9th, 2012

This Fourth of July, I spent the day reading. All of it. I did not watch the fireworks; I did not leave the apartment. I scarcely left my reading chair.

The book in question — for it was one book — was Wilkie Collins’s No Name, a novel that I’d never heard of when Kathleen found it on the shelves at the London Review Bookshop in May. She read it in one go, mostly on the plane coming home, absolutely unwilling to put it down. It took the book longer to hook med; the First Scene’s idyll cum catastrophe seemed to involve a lot of  stuffy Victorian attitudinizing. But once Magdalen made her escape, and the story got rolling, it carried me along as gleefully as any amusement-park ride.

For sheer fun, the Fourth Scene can’t be beat. Set at Aldborough (Aldeburgh) on the Suffolk coast, it is a high-pitched match — liken it to tennis or to chess as you will — between two wily plotters whose schemes are so fast and furious that they often blow up, or fall completely flat, with the sardonic levity of Mad Magazine’s “Spy vs Spy” feature. Collins is of course the arch-plotter himself, and his shamelessness is exceeded only by his plausibility. You could argue that a novel as entertaining as No Name can’t be a very great one, but I’m not interested in that kind of talk right now. I believe that anyone my age ought to have read a novel three times before getting carried away by greatness.

And in any case what interests me most about the book, quite aside from the fun of it, is its ending, and what I like about the ending may be proof, to some readers, that No Name is not even a very good novel, much less a great one. I’m not sure that I’d have grasped why I found the ending so satisfying if it hadn’t been for editor Mark Ford’s introductory remarks.

Many, however, have found No Name‘s last chapters unsatisfactory. That Magdalen’s brave odyssey should collapse into such a morass of clichés — rescue by a seafaring strong man, a penitential illness and a sickbed conversion — seems a frustrating elision of the many powerful questions the novel has hitherto posed, though to such as Mrs Olyphant, even this dramatic reversion to the ideals of hearth and home was too little too late.

Were we reading the same book? What “deathbed conversion”? I missed that. Nor did I see Magdalen’s illness as “penitential.” But the “rescue by a seafaring strong man,” now, that didn’t strike me as a cliché at all. D’you know why? From the moment that Captain Kirke made his brief appearance in the middle of the novel, I knew that Magdalen was going to end up in his arms, or at least that’s where I wanted her to end up, because without being entirely conscious of what I was going on I did something that lawyers call “incorporation by reference.” Captain Kirke was a reference, whether Collins intended him to be or not, to Jane Austen’s Captain Wentworth, and when things did indeed work out as I’d hoped, the last thirty-odd pages were charged with all the power of Persuasion, an effect greatly intensified by the fact that I hadn’t just read Persuasion.

Let me be very, very clear about one thing: I have no idea of Collins’s influences. I don’t know that he ever read Persuasion. I’m fairly certain that any reminiscence is unintentional; that, in fact, Collins would have cloyed the ending if he had undertaken it as an homage to Austen’s last novel. The simple truth is that both novelists fastened on a type of English hero that, while not overly common, is instantly recognizable. Collins describes the type very well, seeing him through Magdalen’s eyes and thus capturing the particular flavor of the hero-worship:

She sat listening to him with a breathless interest, looking at him with a breathless wonder, as those fearful stories — made doubly vivid by the simple language in which he told them — fell, one by one, from his lips. His noble unconsciousness of his own heroism — the artless modesty with which he described his own acts of dauntless endurance and devoted courage, without an idea that they were anything more than plain acts of duty to which he was bound by the vocation that he followed — raised him to a place in her estimation so high above her, that she became uneasy and impatient until she had pulled down the idol again, which she herself had set up. It was on these occasions that she rigidly exacted from him all those little familiar attentions so precious to women in their intercourse with me.

You can’t imagine Anne Elliot exacting attentions from Captain Wentworth, but then Anne is like Magdalen’s sister, Norah — patient. Magdalen has, in the course of the novel, exhibited plenty of “dauntless endurance” herself, and plenty of courage as well. She deserves more than a happy ending; she deserves an apotheosis, and that’s what she gets in Captain Kirke. An apotheosis is nothing but a cliché seen in an unflattering light by someone in an ungenerous mood.  


An even guiltier pleasure is imagining what Anthony Trollope would have made of No Name. Thrown it into the fire, he would have. Magdalen Vanstone, insofar as she is the heroine of a novel who finds happiness in the end, stands as a repudiation of everything that Trollope believed about young ladies. The catechism is set forth in The Small House at Allington, in which Lily Dale plights her troth to an unworthy cad, Adolphus Crosbie, and thereafter refuses to acknowledge that Crosbie’s withdrawal from her life permits her to entertain the affections of the worthy man who really loves her, Johnny Eames. Readers begged Trollope to bring Lily and Johnny together in a later book, but he steadfastly refused to do so, because his belief that a good woman can love only once was an article of personal religion. It was also an article of his artistic practise, and that’s why I had to stop reading Trollope: he was prescribing his romances, not describing them.

When Magdalen Vanstone falls in love with Frank Clare, it’s puzzling, because Magdalen is such a strong girl and Frank is such a wuss. You wonder: is Magdalen going to be the making of this young man? Even if you’re clever, like me, and foresee that Frank’s path will cross Captain Kirke’s (how could they not? they’re both in China; and, yes, that’s a joke of sorts), you don’t know what Collins is going to do with Frank when it comes time to tie up all the knots. In any case, Magdalen outgrows the boy. He behaves badly and she gets over it. Frank’s father writes, at the end, to tell her what has become of his son. “The time when it could have distressed her, was gone by; the scales had long since fallen from her eyes.” Scales don’t exist, somehow, for Trollope, and this makes his love stories awkward, because nobody can ever grow up.

No Trollopean heroine would ever dream of embarking on Magdalen’s vengeful adventure, either. Trollope must have hated the very success of Magdalen’s bold impersonations. Nor could he have believed in rehabilitation for a swindler like Captain Wragge. It is impossible not to imagine Trollope waxing mighty indignant. Presenting a minx and a scoundrel in a warm, favoring light: how awfully immoral he must have found it!

He probably had the sense not to read it.  


The question raised by my positive feelings about the ending of No Name is this: what kind of literary criticism am I practising when I “incorporate by reference” the whole of one novel into the body of another, giving the second a kind of experiential credit? By insisting that No Name gave me great pleasure because I was singularly well-reminded of Persuasion? Does my report have any value? Or is it the unhelpful equivalent of saying, “I really liked it!”

I believe that it does have value, that it is extremely important to be candid about the pleasures of fiction, howsoever they derive. I note that Captain Kirke reminded me of Captain Wentworth in a way that I would not see Captain Wentworth’s reminding me of Captain Kirke. Reading Persuasion, I might well be reminded of the example of Captain Kirke, as another “seafaring strong man.” But I would not say that Persuasion is like No Name. This connection runs one way only, and it ought to be clear that the point of my remarks is not, certainly not to propose an equivalence between the two novels. No Name is, one might argue, a lesser novel precisely because Persuasion can be read into it. Nothing can be read into Persuasion, or into any of Jane Austen, except perhaps shreds of Dr Johnson’s cadences. Jane Austen needs no help from me.

But if Wilkie Collins does, if he can use that help — if No Name becomes a more satisfying book if you’ve read (and loved) Persuasion — then I’m happy to give it. I’m happy to help myself, in short. No Name might not be a better novel, but it becomes a more engaging one because of what I bring to it. The matter interests me very much as a function of age. I read, as it were, ensconced on an ever-growing and now rather massive cloud of prior reading. There’s no telling or how it might adapt my reading posture, or what I might reach in and pull out of it.

The idea of evaluating a novel in isolation, judging how well it functions as a self-contained contraption, is by now vieux jeu. We read for pleasure, not for liturgical exercise. In the end, “I really liked it” must be the (unstated) premise of every critical response; “I didn’t like it” ought to warn the writer to stop right there, for nothing that follows will be of any serious interest (however rib-tickling the take-down). If you want to tell the world that you liked something, then you must be as fully honest as you can be, and admit to accidental attractions aong with the high-minded ones. In the case of No Name, I don’t see anything particularly accidental about my being reminded of Persuasion. It can be taken as understood that, at this point, I’ve read all of Jane Austen three or four times at least. (Just as it can be taken as understood that I’m unable to finish Moby-Dick.) And how keen the pleasure, in such a jolly book, to feel the warmth and generosity of a novel so much more austere.  

Gotham Diary:
Tuesday, 29 July 2011

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

My latest problem is: Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletins. These quarterly publications pile up! I’ve got nearly a foot of them. That’s a lot of shelf space, if you’re wondering. And I don’t have it. Not for the Bulletins.

Aside from the occasional issue devoted to recent acquisitions, each quarterly bulletin is devoted to one theme: the art of a region, a period, or even of one particular artist. Occasionally, the Museum resorts to bulletin format for minor catalogues, as was the case when Vermeer’s Milkmaid paid a visit from the Rijksmuseum. The format blends light-handed scholarship with texts that the educated general reader will find informative and well-written. But I have yet to encounter a Bulletin that tells me everything I want to know about work that already interests me, and Ican think of only one instance when a Bulletin sent me to a part of the Museum that I’d never been to before in search of works that I hadn’t thought I’d care much about. I ought to read the Bulletins as they come in; that goes without saying. But it would take eight to ten people to get through the stuff that I ought to read. At my pace, anyway. 

So they pile up, unread for the most part. Here, from Summer 2001: Ars Vitraria: Glass in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I don’t know quite how to approach it. It looks like a high-end catalogue of gifts that happen not to be for sale, but there are a few stained-glass windows that have nothin,g beyond their common material, to do with anything else in the book. One of the windows comes from Rouen Cathedral (!) “Theodosius Arrives at Ephesus (Scene from the Legend of the Seven Sleepers),” it’s called. The accompanying passage provides dates for Emperor Theodosius II (a long reign, 408-50) and recites the legend (the sleepers were persecuted Christians who had been tucked into a comfy cave in the Third Century, miraculously resurrected). We’re also told that the panels, of which this is just one, were dismantled and rearranged in the Rayonnant style to fit the lancet windows of side-chapels that were added to the cathedral, presumably in a way that blocked off (or opened up) the panels’ original windows. As a result, the original composition “of cluster medallions against a mosaic ground, like the contemporary windows at Chartres,” has been lost. Very interesting!

In most cases, if I want to see an item that’s written up in the Bulletin, and it belongs to the Museum, I have only to walk down the street, but a glance at Theodosius arriving in Ephesus will require a trip uptown to the Cloisters. By the time I make my next trip, I wonder what I’ll still recall of the information in the foregoing sentences. I’m not an aficionado of stained glass, but I have an abiding interest in Medieval art, so it’s not a waste of time for me to know a little something about this fragment. Nothing in the world, however, is going to make me want to know more about the pair of Syrian blown goblets from the Eleventh Century that, to my eyes, are the one thing that glass ought never to be: dirty-looking.  

Here’s a good one. Summer 2004: “The Flowering of the French Renaissance.” I open up to a handsome chalk drawing of a young man from the middle of the Sixteenth Century, attributed to the Clouet studio, who may be Guy de Laval XVII (who died at 26 in 1547) or Guy XVIII. It belonged to Catherine de’ Medici. “Skilled in diplomacy and in arranging marriages for her children, Catherine was eager to identify noble men and women throughout Europe.” Well, you could say that about her, I suppose, but it would sound better if she’d left a few grandchildren, and hadn’t acquired such a toxic reputation among Protestants. Not that I’m complaining! Page 23 of this bulletin features an image of one of my all-time favorite weird pictures, Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh: An Allegory of the Dinteville Family, by an unknown artist. It hangs, these days, over some furniture somewhere, but it used to be found in the galleries that you’d exit into after seeing a special exhibit in the Old Master Galleries (that’s what I call them). It’s bold and clear (as clear as a Lotto), and homoerotic in a way that manages to be both robust and coy. It’s very naughty, as befits a painting about a family scandal. On page 35, however, there’s a photograph of a set of deluxe pruning tools. More items that aren’t for sale. 

I don’t think that I’ve ever opened Summer 2009 before today. They don’t put the titles on the cover. You have to open them to find out what the subject is, if the cover art doesn’t tell you. The cover art here doesn’t tell you, and you probably wouldn’t figure it out, either — so I’ll let that go. The issue is devoted to “Scientific Research in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Now, it’s clear that we all ought to read this from cover to cover. I’m serious! You should see some of the equipment they’ve got there. Caption: “71. (left) Pendant (fig 65) being placed into the chamber of a scanning electron microscope (SEM) for surface analysis of enamels.” Is that contraption really sitting somewhere in the basement at 1000 Fifth Avenue? On page 41, a chart entitled Marker, showing a schematic Antibody brushing up against a schematic Antigen. This is from “Immunology and Art: Using Antibody-based Techniques to Identify Proteins and Gums in Binding Media and Adhesives.” I expect that a learned version of this paper has been published, eye-glazingly, elsewhere, but it’s stuff like this that keeps me in shape as a know-it-all. With just a few bits and pieces gummed and bound to my conversational palette, I can paralyze up five cocktail-party guests at close range. 

Ooh, Madame X. Here’s one I’m never going to throw away: Spring 2000, “John Singer Sargent in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” An all-time beloved picture: Mr and Mrs I N Phelps Stokes. The thing to remember is that ‘P’ comes before ‘S.’ I’m just thinking out loud, here. If I were a real knickerbocker, I’d know that it’s “Phelps Stokes” and not “Stokes Phelps,” but every time I mention this picture I wonder if I’ve got it right, and hesitate so long that it sounds like I don’t know what I’m talking about. The Phelps Stokeses had houses on the same block of Madison Avenue as the Morgan house that’s now part of the Morgan Library; it may even have belonged to them at one point. I remember reading that somewhere. Also that Mrs Phelps Stokes, the wonderful Katharine-Hepburn-like American beauty in Sargent’s picture, died more or less broke in the Fifth Avenue apartment building built by her antiquarian husband. The Crash, you know. He’s in the picture, apparently, because he showed up at the studio instead of his wife’s wolfhound. Is that true? Almost. From page 28: “…. and the dog was unavailable — Stokes had ‘a sudden inspiration,’ he recalled, and ‘offered to assume the role of the Great Dane in the picture. Sargent was delighted, and accepted the proposal at once…'” You can’t make this stuff up. (Although evidently you can mangle the details.)

I don’t know what I’d do if I had to decide between the Sargent bulletin and Summer 1995, and could keep only one. Summer 1995 is devoted to the architectural history of — the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have pored over every page with the enthusiasm of a fanatic child. Because what’s more interesting than almost any individual thing in the Museum is the building itself. I don’t mean beautiful; I mean interesting. To look at the aerial photograph of the Museum taken in 1920, before the lower reservoir was replaced by the Great Lawn, before the first bits of the American Wing were tacked on to the northwest corner, before — just what was tucked into that space before they built Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium (which was still new-ish when I first attended lectures there in the early Sixties)? — to look at this picture is to be confronted with a radically different Manhattan, a place familiar but incomplete, a town where they have no idea what’s coming. The most futuristic designers of Hollywood could never have imagined what would be added to this complex of structures in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. That’s because no one would have foreseen changes in the nature of the Museum itself. No one in 1920 could imagine the fun that my grandson would have running around the Engelhard Court — or the smiles on the guards’ faces. 

Let’s do this again some time! Maybe I’ll come across a bulletin that I can deaccession.

Reading Note:
A Preliminary Concern About The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

In the middle of his rich and warm appraisal of The Pale King and its author, David Foster Wallace,”Too Much Information,” John Jeremiah Sullivan argues that Wallace was a man who knew too much, one whose consciousness grasped more than could be comfortably borne. 

Wallace’s beat-by-beat breakdown of what happens to a table full of ordinary men and women when an extremely physically attractive person sits down (in this case, at the bar where the IRS workers hang out) is both painful and darkly humorous, an example of what I was trying to say about his observational power, and of how discouraging it must have often been to find yourself stuck in Wallace’s head, not in the illness of it, but in the clarity of it:

Sullivan then quotes a chunky passage* from the novel (you will find it in the middle of this page) that, if nothing else, reads like a gifted field naturalist’s notes. The effect of a beautiful woman on a table of men (with a few more ordinary women among them) is not only observed but captured, so that the brio of the men’s display (sometimes manifest as the discernible pretence of no display) is matched by the brio of the writing. 

Some of the male examiners are, by the second round of pitchers, performing for Meredith Rand, even if the performance’s core consists of making a complex show of the fact that they are not performing for Meredith Rand or even especially aware that she’s at the table.

There is something diminishing, almost tragic, about what happens to these men when Meredith Rand takes a seat among them. They could be deer, or any other animals that fall into a competitive frenzy when presented with a sexual challenge. We’re told that Rand makes the men “self-conscious,” and it’s clear that the scope of this consciousness, while intense, is reduced. As indeed Wallace puts it in a metaphor at the beginning of the passage, the men are “involved in a game whose stakes have suddenly become terribly high.” They’re self-conscious insofar as they are themselves the pieces in the game that they have fallen into playing. Their consciousness is in any case limited — focused, concentrated —  to the rules and play of a game. They have become a great deal less conscious than the observer, who is conscious of all of them. Perhaps — this might be what Sullivan is trying to say — Wallace’s gift (or curse) was to remain fully conscious even in circumstances such as these; while ordinary men were obliged to narrow their view to exclude everything but the elements of a problem (how to win the regard of Meredith Rand), he could watch himself pretending not to jockey for attention, and not lose sight of their doing the same thing. 

To me, however, the passage suggested not a hypertrophic consciousness but a mislaid one. 

It is undoubtedly a valuable cognitive nugget to savor the way in which these men pursue by pretending to ignore the object of their pursuit. Indeed, “pursuit” seems wrong. The men are more like girls at a prom, making a great show of admiring each others’ pretty party dresses while apparently turning their backs to the boys. Perhaps there is, finally, no gender issue here at all: Wallace is merely describing what hip, intelligent people of either sex do. He doesn’t go into why they do what they do (not here, anyway), but that’s no mystery: the smart person’s first response to the arrival of another smart person who happens also to be attractive (for any reason and for any purpose in the world) is to make it clear that he or she, the first person, leads a life that would interest the attractive person. Smart people know that good relationships require mutual regard. The moment a smart person perceives an attraction to another smart person, the fact itself loses all interest; it’s time to move on to the next question: will that attraction be reciprocated. Stupid people are often quite preoccupied by the fact of their own attraction to someone else. Young people, who start out stupid, always begin by thinking that it’s wonderful to be in love with someone. Smart people know better. Smart people pretend that Meredith Rand isn’t there because they already know that and are busy making an appeal to someone who can’t be acknowledged. 

This is all very interesting; but is it fiction? Fiction writing, I mean. Has Wallace shown us anything that hasn’t been captured in any number of movies made over the past ten or fifteen years? It would be nice to point to an example, but the grip that today’s filmmakers have on this kind of social observation is so firm that it would probably be difficult to find a smart romantic comedy or recent vintage that does not present men pretending to ignore the object of their pursuit. That is where the laughs lie today; as in a sort of updated Candid Camera, today’s romantic comedies set out to capture images of bogus and disingenuous behaviors and to label them clearly for the audience. It seems to me that film is a better medium for this kind of reporting, if for no other reason than that it’s likety to reach many people who don’t read serious fiction (or essays about the curiosities of cognition). If you’re going to write about this sort of thing, though, then keep going, and do the anthropology. And then, figure out what to call it. 

You can see that Wallace was worried about what he was doing in the sentence that precedes Sullivan’s extract: “The specifics of these sorts of changes are familiar enough to everyone not to spend time enumerating.” This sentence, with its startlingly awkward constructiion, would certainly have been rubbed out had Wallace lived to complete The Pale King. How much else would have gone with it? 

*As if by some sort of miracle, when I opened the novel in search of this passage, I found myself at the beginning of §46, three pages from the one on which the passage appears, 447.

Reading Note:
Rodin’s Debutante
by Ward Just

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Rodin’s Debutante is Ward Just’s seventeenth novel. It has left me grappling with my response. As a novel — as a work of fiction with a beginning, an end, and, not too long before the end, an excitement of some kind — I found it wanting. There were several beginnings, and the excitement was distributed throughout the book with little sense of overall pacing. I was not sure what the book was about, really. But these are formal concerns, difficulties with the mechanics. Which is not to suggest that the book didn’t purr along smoothly, or that I was ever anything but eager to turn the page. But I had the sense ot too much of this and not enough of that. And by the time I was done, I was pretty sure that I’d have enjoyed the reading of Rodin’s Debutante much more if it had been presented as a series of discrete stories, sharing characters but not narrative trajectories. Each story would have concerned an aspect of the life of Lee Goodell, whose coming-of-age novel it is. There are several very fine stories in the book; there are none that aren’t engaging. I’m aware that the author may have rejected this novel-in-stories approach because “life isn’t like that.” What’s more, now that I’ve done with the reading, my memory is doing a fine job of reorganizing the material in separate stories. I find myself wondering, why does it matter how Ward Just decided to lay out his novel? 

The satisfactions of Rodin’s Debutante remain considerable. They have everything to do with the recreation of a bygone America that has left few traces. The country was closer to its pious origins during the novel’s time-frame, which runs from 1914 to 1963; it was simpler and more earnest. An uneasy sophistication was beginning to settle on the shoulders of the elite, who could see an unwanted class structure emerge in the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society. Whatever pipe dreams Jefferson might have harbored for yeoman farmers, it was difficult to conceive of an enlightened urban proletariat, and the propertied classes did not give the undertaking much effort. Instead, the professionals who administered the affairs of the wealthy slipped naturally into positions of patriarchal oversight from which they kept the peace among the general public by whatever means they deemed fit. But they remained uncomfortable with the idea of their power. It looked too much like the old aristocracy that their forebears had left behind in Europe. Candor suffered as a result. Left hands got good at doing things that right hands didn’t know about. 

Only an outsider would see hypocrisy here, and it is precisely the absence of hypocrisy that Just establishes in the most powerful of the stories that he tells in Rodin’s Debutante. This is the story of Magda Serra. Magda is a classmate of Lee’s at the high school in the Lake Michigan town somewhere between Chicago and Milwaukee. She is a working-class girl. Her mother is a Serbian immigrant; her father, a Puerto Rican who has abandoned his family. One night, Lee’s father, a judge, comes home late, bringing a group of other leading citizens with him. They sit in the judge’s study, and, through open windows, Lee eavesdrops on their discussion, which concerns “an attack” on Magda, who was discovered by the school janitor in a small room near the gym. The members of “The Committee,” as Lee refers to six of the eight men in his father’s study, have convened to decide how to handle the matter. Because Magda can’t or won’t talk, her assailant remains at large. But the Committee is somewhat more concerned about the town’s image, and that’s why it’s Alfred Swan, the publisher of the local newspaper, who is under more pressure than the chief of police. The other men in the study want Alfred to treat the story as blandly as possible, so as not to attract the lurid interest of the Chicago papers. This is precisely what Alfred does, but, needled into cussedness, he puts up a fight. 

There are eight people in this room, Alfred said. We all know the details of this crime, or most of the details. I’m sure the chief has withheld the worst of them. When this meeting is over some of us will go home and tell our wives, of course swearing them to silence. And as surely as the day will dawn, this story will be all over town by close of business tomorrow. The first question will be: Who’s the victim? The second will be: Who’s the suspect? And the third will be: Why haven’t I read about it in Alfred Swan’s newspaper? What’s the World covering up? That bastard Swan, you can never trust him. Swan only prints what suits him. Fuck him, they’ll say. Fuck Alfred Swan and his newspaper. I’m canceling my subscription. 

I remembered how startled I was. I Had never heard that word used in our house. Occasionally, my father allowed himself a “goddamn” and, in extremis, “shit,” and never within my mother’s hearing. Ungentlemanly behavior, my father said. The language of truck drivers. 

The discussion remains wilfully oblique. What exactly happened to Magda is left to the imagination. What interests Lee, in any case, is the way in which the men handle the matter — this is how things are done. Something of an old soul, he is not panting for sordid details but, on the contrary, registering how much can be accomplished without their DIsclosure. 

Near the end of the book — where a climax might be in a more conventional book — Magda re-enters Lee’s life. She has become a school teacher in St Louis, but she has not really recovered from the rape. The congruence of her own amnesia and the town’s desire to put the matter aside (in the absence of a likely suspect) have plastered over the event, but the plaster is as obtrusive as a representation of the rape would be. It is the absent thing that everyone is aware of. Magda still recalls nothing of what happened, and has come back to the town in hopes of finding out something about what happened to her. But there is little for her to learn. With Lee she is polite, but an underlying implacability shows through. Lee is at a loss to know what Magda needs to hear, and he tells her that he hopes that he hasn’t upset her. Her response is astringent: “I’m always upset. It’s how I live.” We are left with no sense of whom to blame for the terrible thing that has happened to Magda. Because, as I say, the scene occupies the real estate of a climax, well-trained readers will shudder to think that, at the last minute, Lee himself is going to be unmasked as the rapist. Of course no such thing happens, but the anxiety is of a piece with the clouds of unknowing in which Magda’s story is immured. 

Between overhearing his father and the other men discuss Magda’s rape, and actually discussing it with her years later, Lee lives through many interesting chapters that have nothing to do with Magda. In fact, they have nothing to do with the carefully reconstructed lake shore town in which Lee grew up. After the rape, Lee’s mother persuades the judge to move to Chicago’s North Shore. For a reason that is actually hard to guess, Lee is sent to a boarding school to the west of the city, where we see him in the course of another one of this novel’s stories — I’ll come back to it in a moment — after which he goes to the University of Chicago and takes up sculpting blocks of marble in an unsafe neighborhood near Hyde Park. He falls in love with his roommate’s girlfriend after the roommate returns to his native London. After graduation, Lee has a successful first sale of his sculptures, and he marries Laura as soon as her mother pulls out of pneumonia. A series of sweet honeymoon snapshots ensue, taken in Naples and Florence. Only after all of this does Magda reappear, and she has absolutely nothing to do with any of it. 

Why should I care? As I say, my memory is rewriting the book to suit my sense of its stories — what it has to tell me. The prep school story that I mentioned a moment ago is a football story. Although not a big boy, Lee is a fast and agile runner, but his school’s team is so demoralized that it loses sixteen games in a row. We learn this in the first of the story’s twp scenes, which takes place in the office of a departing headmaster. Lee asks that a few hundred dollars be budgeted for team training; he has organized a football camp for the month of August at a teammate’s aunt’s estate in Wisconsin. The conversation ranges far and wide from this petition, however, and it seems inexplicable that Lee would wait until the last minute to show himself to a man whom he seems to admire. We become aware that the author is stretching the scene in order to show Lee to us. An air of implausibility gathers in the corners of the headmasters office. 

The second scene takes place after the last game of the following football season, which Lee and his team have just won. Lee lingers on the field, savoring a victory that
he can already feel slipping into the past. His attention is drawn to a Cadillac limousine idling in the trees beyond the goalpost. The powerfully-built old man sitting in the limousine turns out to be Tommy Ogden, about whom I’m tempted to say nothing. Tommy, an eccentric railroad heir, is the founder of the school — he grew up in the house that became Ogden Hall School for Boys — but he is so reclusive that half the students doubt that he even exists. We know all about him, though, because it is his story that opens Rodin’s Debutante; he is in fact the connection between the sculpture of the title and Lee’s career. Tommy has (of course) supplied the funding for the football camp; at Christmas, he will send silver cups from Tiffany to each of the boys on the team — anonymously. Only Lee gets to meet him, and Lee will not mention meeting him until the last page of the novel, when he surveys the burning ruins of Ogden Hall — it is now 1963 — with the other hero of his team, a boy named Hopkins who has grown into a rather sour and unpleasant commodities broker. 

It is all very well to say that Ward Just is an old man with an old man’s license to write whatever pleases him. It seems ungallant to see in Rodin’s Debutante‘s strange proporitions a “falling off” or a disappointment. In the Book Review, Steven Heighton all but hails the novel as a groundbreaking re-invention of the coming-of-age form. In Lee Goodell and his father, the judge, Just has created two very attractive, very American figures, and, in Tommy Ogden, an unusual but entirely believable one. In the background, there is Chicago, a tough town whose bookkeeping, however, is pristine, because its corruption comes at fixed prices. I tried thinking of Rodin’s Debutante as a novel “about Chicago,” but that’s just what it isn’t; it’s a novel about men who manage somehow to stay out of Chicago, even if they live in it. Chicago, one fears, is for truckdrivers. 

Reading Note:
My Korean Deli
by Ben Ryder Howe

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Ben Ryder Howe packs his memoir, My Korean Deli: Risking It All For a Convenience Store, with a double whammy. There is the up-front story indicated in the title. An underachieving egghead is roped into running a convenience store in Brooklyn that his Korean-American wife, a successful but burned out corporate lawyer, buys as a way of “giving back” to her mother, a formidable can-do lady by the unlikely name of Kay. Our hero is thereby taken completely out of his element.

Monday is always the worst day at the store. No one buys anything. They stay at home eating leftovers, I guess, of maybe they dine out, or maybe they just starve themselves. It’s one of the mysteries of the convenience store business, like the phenomenon of customer waves, whereby the store goes completely dead for a few minutes — you can hear the cockroaches scurrying — and then all of a sudden twenty customers walk in at the same time, as if they’d been conspiring outside on the sidewalk, huddling in the manner of a football tgeam, with formations and schemes and plans of attack to makee sure that not one night will ever go buy when I do not commit a huge pressure-induced mistake.

This is a familiar story,  although one that Howe tells extremely well. A clueless WASP is thrown into an exotic milieu in which little of his extensive training for life among the entitled is of any use.  The ghost of Evelyn Waugh smiles over this sort of story, and by attending to his example (the stark display of humiliation in clear but understated prose; plenty of nasty surprises; the conviction that life is more ridiculous than tragic), a talented and persevering writer can be sure of producing a good read. Howe does the job about as well as it has ever been done. My Korean Deli is as hugely entertaining as any funny book, fact or fiction, that I can think of.

But there is another story here, and if its appeal is much narrower than the one in the foreground, the readers to whom it will appeal are the readers who care about literary distinction. Howe is wise not to tell it at any length; rather, he slips in occasional sketches of illustrative scenes. George Plimpton, late founder and editor of The Paris Review, appears in each of these sketches, at least until he dies in his sleep. Howe was a senior editor at The Paris Review during Plimpton’s last years, and it is clear from what he tells us that it would not have been difficult to whip up a Waughian spoof of the enterprise. Here is Plimpton addressing his staff after a fall, tacitly pointing out that the Review will be in a pickle without him.

The staff nods. We’ve hear this speech before. After the bus-on-York-Avenue scenario — in case that wasn’t vivid enough — he’d come up with a half-dozen more. (“I could be crushed by a falling bridge. I could fall into the polar bear den at the Central Park Zoo. I could be mortally wounded in a freak trampoline accident.”) Talking this way revealed that even George worried about death and, in particular, the future, which is only natural in a seventy-five-year-old. It wasn’t quite as morbid as it sounds, however: part of him, the bon vivant, the seeker of fun, clearly looked forward to adding death to his repertoire of experiences and the stories he would be able to tell about it afterward.

You have to read this twice to appreciate the sting. Plimpton is already a figure of fun — likeable but a bit fatuous — without the snark about his repertoire of experiences; and yet you suspect that Howe is absolutely right; it takes the place, in a more interesting way, of planning one’s own funeral. The remark skewers Plimpton — but with a silver spear.

Even better is a frightful encounter at a publicity party. Howe has screwed up, in a sort-of way, and the mistake is going to cost the magazine $10,000 — very big money on the Review‘s shoestring budget. Howe is advised to stand back while a colleague tells Plimpton what has happened.

Luckily, the balcony is where the bar is. After downing two quick cocktails, I watch as Elizabeth gradually works her way through the library’s vaulted hall and snags George’s attention. He seems delighted to see her — Ha! He’s in a good mood. He listens intently, eyes narrowed, not saying a word as Elizabeth lays out the situation. Then his face seems to darken, and his features seem to elongate, and before my eyes George morphs into a grotesque hawklike bird with a fierce brow and an angry beak. Oh dear. He’s scanning the room for a face — mine, presumably; Elizabeth must have told him I’m here — and it occurs to me that I shouldn’t be spying on him like this. I look again: that angry beak is now mouthing the words (I can see it clearly from across the room) “Where is he? WHERE IS HE? I want to talk to him now.”

This is a view of the affable amateur that hasn’t been widely seen — but it is part of a considered, humane, and even compassionate deconstruction of the literary playboy. Later, Plimpton will confess to Howe that he worries about being a fraud, because he actually hates performing in front of other people; his famously easygoing charm is an act, not insincere so much as professional. (Presumably, these misgivings explain why Plimpton died without completing his own memoirs.) Howe has opened himself to the charge of score-settling, but I’m persuaded to take a more charitable view.

Autobiographically, My Korean Deli tells a story of Bildung by attrition. “First came the disassembly of the self, the softening up of an already tenuous psyche. Then came exposure to values … that were the opposite of those I grew up with.” The result is a confident father who has arrived at manhood without the benefit of signs and wonders. There is a point at which Howe could easily have connected The Paris Review to the other things that he needed to outgrow, but I think that he’s too generous to do that. He is frank about losing his editing job along with all the other survivors of the Plimpton régime; wisdom accrued behind the counter of a mini-mart at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Hoyt Street (easily found with Google maps, by the way) did nothing to prompt his departure from the magazine. But he clearly sees the improvisational nature of George Plimpton’s operating system as the byproduct of arrested development. Perhaps the point will be made more explicitly in the movie adaptation, which I hope is already in the works. One with plenty of voice-over narration taken straight from Howe’s splendid prose.  

Reading Note:
Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010


At Crawford Doyle last Friday, I bought two novels, even though I have a rule against buying novels and, worse, despite the fact that I had been in the store on Wednesday, and not only bought several books but ordered — two novels. I had not planned to visit the bookshop quite so soon, but Ms NOLA had been at the Museum, so there we were. Crossing Fifth Avenue, I headed along the south side of 82nd Street, but it was Ms NOLA who voiced the suggestion — no doubt regarding it as foregone. Stepping into the cool, dusky air, I felt almost criminal, as though I were about to buy a large ice cream after a heavy dinner, complete with dessert. The idea of leaving the store without buying something was unthinkable; I’d have felt that I’d insulted the staff and presumed upon the air conditioning. Very silly compunction. The upshot was that I walked out with those two novels. But neither of them was new, and I could imagine devouring one of them on the spot.

That would be Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, which I hadn’t read. I had just read a review of the recent life, and mention had been made of Ivy Compton-Burnett. It seems that Spark actually acknowledged the influence of Compton-Burnett, which of course made it official, and I was curious to test the connection. The review also mentioned that caring for her ancient grandmother gave Spark the familiarity with the elderly that is manifest in Memento Mori. So that seemed to be the book to read, and there it was, at Crawford Doyle. In case you’ve never read Ivy Compton-Burnett — well, I don’t really know what to say. I’ve got a book somewhere that hails her as a camp classicist, and there is about her style a self-conscious intensity that seems now and then to wink at the reader. Compton-Burnett wrote about ghastly old Victorians, patriarchs and matriarchs who, wholly wrapped up in themselves, tyrannized the the young people who had the misfortune to be nearby. They’re not quite human, too; they glitter and gleam like birds of prey, determined but brainless. If you are writing anything serious at the moment, stay away from Ivy Compton-Burnett, because her manner is dreadfully catching; you’ll find yourself imitating her, horrified but fascinated, unable to stop.

When did I last read a book by Ivy Compton-Burnett? Decades ago, I think. I read a batch of them, and then I couldn’t read another. The last one that I read was published by Virago, I think, and it had a dyspeptic Picasso on the cover. Ah yes, here it is: Two Worlds and Their Ways. I don’t remember much about it, except that the atmosphere was oppressive, and that there weren’t any attractive characters. Maybe there was an attractive character or two, but they didn’t stick in the mind. The horrid old people stuck in the mind. Well, their horridness sticks in the mind. Imagine a life of heaping but flavorless food, served up in overheated rooms at punctual hours, silent but for the sounds of genteel people eating and digesting. Eventually, you conclude, “I can’t read this sort of thing anymore,” but it sticks with you, and, when you read Memento Mori, it all comes back.

Rather, it does not come back but it lingers in your peripheral vision. You know that it’s there and you sense it compulsively, but you cannot look at it. Spark’s characters are not so awful, possibly because they’re the children of the Victorian horrors in Compton-Burnett. But now it’s their turn to be old, and most of them are cross about it. There is the feeling, strong in Compton-Burnett, that age distills the vices of the mind, so that even if some old fool is physically incapable of doing much of anything, he can still splash around in a sulfuric puddle of universal loathing. There is also a return to childishness, to sudden hatreds and silly requests; an unwillingness to take very seriously what might make another person happy. A brusque self-pitying rudeness takes the place of politeness.

“You might have opened the door for me,” she said.

Godfrey did not at first understand what she meant, for he had long since started to use his advanced years as an excuse to omit the mannerly conformities of his younger days, and was now automatically rude in his gestures, as if by long-earned right. He sensed some new frightful upheaval of his habits behind her words, as he drove off fitfully towards Sloane Square.

As in Compton-Burnett (but also as in Spark’s other novels), the plot is buried in the busyness of a dozen microscopic campaigns. Godfrey Colston feels so embattled by his wife, by his wife’s former lover, and by his housekeeper, that he no longer has the faintest idea what he wants; he is simply at war, albeit on subdued terms, with the entire world. He lunges at imagined encroachments without much conviction in the effectiveness of either his bark or his bite. There is an inheritance, but Spark couldn’t be more desultory about its settlement, and when it ends up in the hands of the woman who was counting upon it all along, the chanciness of this outcome is so comic that one almost fancies it as a pie in her face. There is a notional mystery: the gang of old people who constitute the cast of Memento Mori have all been pestered by anonymous telephone callers who simply remind them, before hanging up, to “remember that you must die.” I put “callers” in the plural because the old folks can’t agree on what sort of voice makes these announcements, young, old, distinguished or common. Dame Lettie Colston, a do-goodering battleaxe, is so outraged by the calls that she wants the matter raised in Parliament. In contrast, Charmian Piper, a once-famous novelist who begins to recover from incipient dementia when her books are reissued and made a cult of by young readers, believes that the proper response to the phone calls is to take them at their word: it can’t hurt to remember that you must die. Dame Lettie considers the warning impertinent at best and menacing at worst, and indeed she comes to a corresponding end, while Charmian dies “one morning in the following spring,” in manifestly uneventful circumstances.

Almost everybody dies, but that’s what the title promised, no? One survivor, Alec Warner, is an unwitting mischief-maker whose amassed observations of old people, researched for some Casaubon-like book, are consumed in a fire; he suffers a stroke and goes to live in a nursing home “and frequently searched through his mind, as through a card catalogue, for the case-histories of his friends, both dead and dying.” Another is the awful Mrs Pettigrew, the officious housekeeper schemes to benefit from her employers’ wills. Mrs Pettigrew has lived among the gentry long enough to pass for one of them, but she knows her place, and one of the most astute passages in Memento Mori ties together her ersatz morality with her caste uncertainty.

Mrs Pettigrew went upstairs to look round the bedrooms, to see if they were all right and tidy, and in reality to simmer down and look round. She was annoyed with herself for letting go at Mrs Anthony. She should have kept aloof. But it had always been the same — even when she was with Lisa Brooke — when she had to deal with lower domestics she became too much one of them. It was kindness of heart, but it was weak. She reflected that she had really started off on the wrong foot with Mrs Anthony; that, when she had first arrived, she should have kept her distance with the woman and refrained from confidences. And now she had lowered herself to an argument with Mrs Anthony. These thoughts overwhelmed Mrs Pettigrew with that sense of having done a foolish thing against one’s interests, which in some people stands for guilt. And in this frame of heart she repented, and decided, as she stood by Charmian’s neatly-made bed, to establish her position more solidly in the household, and from now on to treat Mrs Anthony with remoteness.

Fat chance of that.

Reading Note:
Enough With the Cleverness
Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado

Monday, July 19th, 2010


As I was reading the last pages of Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado, it occurred to me that the defining characteristic of literary fiction these days is cleverness. It’s not enough to tell a good story and to tell it well — if it were, then we’d have heard a lot more, in mandarin quarters, about the excellence of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. The mandarins want something more, a twist, a parable, a parody.

Vladimir Nabokov did cleverness very well, but what makes other writers want to imitate him? It must be the clean blue flame of Nabokov’s agility that lures them. For Nabokov is never a difficult writer. James Joyce is difficult: on the simplest level, it is not easy to know what he is trying to say. Nabokov’s writing, in contrast, is never opaque. His references are clear even if the referents are not. Whether or not you can follow them, you’re not stopped in your narrative’s tracks. It may sting a bit to register the presence of jokes and allusions that you don’t get, but the clever writer (unlike the difficult one) does not condition his text’s intelligibility upon his reader’s broad learning. You move along; you fall under the spell of Lolita.

I was thinking about cleverness because, when he stops being clever and settles down into straightforward prose, Miguel Syjuco is one of the best writers I’ve come across in ages, and certainly one of the top male novelists.

In the evenings we ventured beyond permission, three of us boys pressed together on my tiny motorcycle, our heads unhelmeted, our legs bent, our feet held an inch off the ground — to visit girls we planned to admire, to half dance, half pose at the open air discos, to marvel and pity and squirm at the freak shows in the fiestas with their naked bulb and the sounds of gambling and the scent of fallow fields. We courted our crushes. Brought them to movie houses that screened films without show time, coming in halfway through and watching the end, then the beginning, then the end again.

Oh, for a book written like this, from beginning to end!

Not that Ilustrado is a bad read. One you’ve penetrated its atmosphere — assuming that your interest hasn’t been toasted, first by a somewhat miscalculated Prologue, and then by the welter of ostensible extracts from fictional fictions — you grasp that the novel winds two narrative strands. two life stories that mirror one another. There is the biography-in-progress of Crispin Salvador, a Philippine writer living in artistic exile in New York City, written by one of his students, our narrator, (also) Miguel Syjuco; and there is the (longer) story of Miguel’s trip to the Philippines to research Salvador’s life. The would-be biographer and his subject, although a generation apart in age (if not more), come from similar backgrounds in the Philippine elite. The families of both are headed by politicians, both are and beset by epic, historic disasters. Both men are haunted by daughters with whom they are not in touch. The doppelgänger trope is worked through to its logical conclusion, with an Epilogue written in the voice of the Prologue’s subject, not that of its narrator. Strewn between these paired expositions are extracts from the work of Crispin Salvador. If I were better read in Philippine literature, I would describe these patches as a gallery of locally-inflected genre writing: folk tales, historical fiction, noir, comic book/science fiction — even literary autobiography. All very clever, needless to say, but hardly more welcome to the appreciator of Mr Syjuco’s default prose style than fallen timber on a remote roadway.

Not that Miguel’s cleverness — I speak of the book’s narrator — isn’t delightful. Mr Syjuco is fundamentally, I think, a humorist who genuinely likes the absurdities of homo sapiens sapiens; I can’t remember laughing so hard at no one’s expense. Unless of course, it is at the expense of the narrator himself, as he chronicles the breakup of a two year romance with a girl called Madison, half Filipina, half American.

For so long, we made plans. Being in love is all about making plans. Or maybe it was just us. Everything was outlined, researched, and refined. Our nonreligionist wedding ceremony. Our ecofriendly funerals. We wanted to be wed somewhere sacred, yet not under the eyes of any god except our love, our selves, and, as Madison said, the wonderful communion of the humanity close to us. We wanted to be buried outside of cemeteries, under trees, in muslin shrouds, close to the earth that would easily reclaim us; we wanted our relatives to avoid carbon emissions and instead hold secular memorials for us in the cities where they lived. We planned the sound track of our lives (Lakme’s aria for her matrimonial march; the bridge in Eric Clapton’s “Layla” for my funeral cortege). We talked about adoption as the only moral choice for the world today, and debated about which country we’d rescue an orphan from. Sometimes, though, Madison would say: Maybe I’d like to have one of our own; or, Maybe it would be nice to be married in a cathedral. To which I’d reply with logic and reason.

The charm of Mr Syjuco’s touch not only makes this harmless youthful narcissism amusing but also prevents our feeling superior to the the too-young lovers; if we’re at all honest, we remember being just like this, once. Ilustrado is shot through with a kindness that is sadly uncommon in men.

In the middle of the book, Miguel talks about Crispin Salvador with two older Philippine writers, each of whom has a different reason for deprecating Salvador’s output. That he wrote in New York City is a predictable offense; more subtle is the complaint that Salvador wrote “more about Filipinos than for Filipinos.” A besetting problem at the frontiers of Anglophone literature is the nationalist issue of cui bono: who is supposed to benefit? It is a false issue, of course, because the principal mission of modern Anglophone literature is its effacement of national boundaries, which it dissolves into cultural differences, and its insistence on a unified community of Anglophone readers. That’s who benefits: people like me, reading in New York City, at the heart, you might say, of the culture; my sensibilities tested and enriched by familiarization with the initially exotic inflections of English as it is spoken, written, and thought in by men and women in the Philippines. Paradoxically, it’s the capturing of what’s unique to foreign parts that situates a writer squarely within our literary tradition. The critic who wants more literature “for Filipinos” harbors the unconscious delusion that the opportunity to read about themselves would encourage more Filipinos to read. That this is nonsense is made clear in a very funny fight scene between Miguel and his grandparents, early in the book.

I steeled my voice. “This is about my short story. Right? I knew I shouldn’t have shown you the magazine. It’s always this way. Why do you think the father figure is always you?”

“I’ve never understood why you can’t just write nice stories. Stories your grandmother would like and can show off to her friends.”

“Granma, is that what this is all about?”

Granma spoke up. Her voice was surprisingly angry. “Why can’t you write nice things?” Her voice softened. “Why would anyone read your story and want to visit our country?”

“A writer has to talk about the things that go untalked about.”

Grapes banged his pillbox on the table. “Don’t argue literary aesthetics with your grandmother,” he said. “She’s right. You are always trying to shock. You have all this horrible stuff in your work. Not very Christian things. Not very patriotic. And you say things that are not yours to say.”

I pray that Miguel Syjuco will write more as a Filipino, with less regard for the current craze for cleverness. I’m happy to forgive the distractions of Ilustrado; the novel would never have attracted the attention that it did without the razzle-dazzle virtuosity. Now that he has demonstrated that he can write like us, however, let’s hope that he will write like himself. Finding out how to do that ought to keep him plenty busy. (July 2010)

New Yorker Story: "La Vita Nuova"

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova,” in the current issue of The New Yorker, is a palpably artful story, but not a very appealing one. At the beginning, an unnamed fiancé breaks up with Amanda, a girl from New York who has followed him to Cambridge. Her immediate response is to carry her wedding dress to the school where she teaches art, and to invite her first-graders to embellish it with paint and feathers. It is impossible not to imagine an operatic mad scene or two, involving deranged heroines and blood. Certainly the school’s principal is disturbed.

The principal told Amanda, that for an educator, bounderies were an issue. “Your personal life,” said the principal, “is not an appropriate art project for first grade. Your classroom,” said the principal, “is not an appropriate forum for your relationships. Let’s pack up the wedding dress.”

At the end of the school year, Amanda’s contract is not renewed. I couldn’t tell how the author wanted me to feel about this. But I knew that the fiancé had done a sane thing in walking away from Amanda.

The meat of the story describes the summer that Amanda spends with Nicholas, one of her first-graders and now her babysitting charge. Nicholas’s parents no longer live together, which makes it easier for Nicholas’s mother to express her dislike of Amanda, and for his father to express his desire to sleep with her. Amanda and Nicholas do neat things, like going to the zoo, and Amanda behaves very responsibly with the boy, but recurring references to things that the fiancé used to say suggest that Amanda is enjoying a protracted mad scene. She is as closed to us as any disturbed person. Instead of hearing her thoughts, we watch her paint several sets of nested Russian dolls.

As before, she coated each painted doll with clear gloss until the colors gleamed. As before, she made each doll a perfect jewel-like object, but she spent the most time on the biggest, oldest doll.

After that, she bought more blanks and painted more sets: people she knew, people she didn’t know. People she met. Portraits in series, five dolls each. She painted Patsy, blonder and blonder in each incarnation. She painted her fiancé as a boy, as an athlete, as a law student, as a paunchy bald guy, as a decrepit old man. She didn’t kill him, but she aged him.

She lined up the dolls and photographed them. She thought about fellowships. She imagined group shows, solo shows. Refusing interviews.

She took Nathaniel to swimming lessons. She went down to the harbor with him and they threw popcorn to seagulls that caught the kernels in midair.

The self-indulgence of Amanda’s obsessive painting is mirrored quite perfectly in the author’s self-indulgent stylishness. What else could possibly link the third and fourth paragraphs here?

At the end of the story, Amanda breaks up with Nicholas; she decides to go back to New York. Nicholas — an unusually likable child, especially for literary precincts of this temperature — is far more dramatically heartbroken by Amanda’s defection than Amanda was by the fiancé’s departure. His squirming pain is so real, in fact, that I wondered if it were not the very point of “La Vita Nuova” (I’m going to let the Dante angle, such as it is, slide): Amanda’s revenge.

Reading Note: Cheerful Money

Monday, April 26th, 2010


If I could only findAlexander Waugh’s Fathers and Sons, I’d shelve Tad Friend’s Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor alongside it. Both books are heady blends of  eccentric family history, upper-middle-class anxiety, and painfully conditional love. Here is Mr Friend’s grandmother, trying to play testamentary tug-of-war with her son.

“Don’t you want my money?” she finally asked, plaintively. Jess seemed to understand that expectations of inheritance ratchet impossibly high because Wasps tend to express love not as a flow of feeling but as a trickle of side tables — leading their children to look to recoup in dead money what they lost in live affection. As Muriel Rogers once told her son Dickie, “I give you money because I love you at that particular time.”

Also: TMI alerts. Alexander Waugh doesn’t talk about himself very much, but his family can’t have been altogether pleased to read some of his stories about his father and grandfather. As for Mr Friend, one’s happiness at his apparently blessed marriage to Amanda Hesser is taxed somewhat by a polite discomfort occasioned his zesty retailing of previous romances. If nothing else, there is the racket of smashing taboos. Nothing could be less WASPy than the author’s accounts of his interactions with Giovanna, Melanie and Christine. Is this progress, or recklessness?

Considering that Mr Friend’s family background must, by any standard measure, be called privileged, it treads water in an ocean of disappointment. Take John Herman Groesbeck Pierson, the author’s maternal grandfather, whose graduation from Yale, in 1927, occasioned a local news item,

“YALE RECORDS SHATTERED BY J H G PIERSON.” The article noted that he had one nine academic prizes, been president of Phi Beta Kappa, and composed the class poem, while also being a member of the cross-country, rifle, and soccer teams, of the student council, and of the Whiffenpoofs — “prizes and recognitions for almost every form of worthy activity that Yale men admire.” 

But how could a newspaper take cognizance of the award that wasn’t bestowed, by Yale’s too-famous-to-mention club? “My mother, and her mother before her, liked to say that Grandpa John’s later frustrations flowed from a single headwaters: his rejection by Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society that ‘tapped’ fifteen juniors each year.” Grandpa John, who lived into his nineties, was saddled with the albatross of having reached his apogee fully seventy years earlier. And yet his career was burnished with real achievement, at least when contrasted with that of the author’s paternal grandfather, a feckless stockbroker who depended on the kindness of moneyed wives.

One  thing that’s for certain: this engagingly written book’s title is brilliant. It refers, specifically, to an emotionally stunted reward system that Mr Friend’s parents devised for reinforcing good behavior in their three children. But it also captures the material paradox at the center of late-WASP life.

So the money Amanda and I have now is almost all money we have made. Still she suggests that my real issue with ambition and money is my residual belief that I don’t have to do anyting I don’t feel like doing in order to establish our family’s financial security, becauase there will eventually be some sort of inheritance to tide us along. This charge is one of the things we sometimes fight about, all the more bitterly because I worry that she might have a point.

Let’s hope that she doesn’t!

Weekend Update: The Koestler Problem

Sunday, January 24th, 2010


Back in callow college days, when I was assigned The Watershed, the book about Johannes Kepler that Arthur Koestler excerpted from The Sleepwalkers, I knew Koestler’s name, and I knew (from the jacket copy on The Watershed) that Koestler was the author a familiar title, Darkness at Noon, although I knew nothing about this latter book. I didn’t know much of anything about the Spanish Civil War, beyond Picasso’s Guernica, and it would have surprised me, in those days, to learn that the same man could face death in one of Franco’s prisons and, later on, write up Kepler’s search for the music of the spheres. But I’d have adjusted right away, because I somehow knew enough to place Koestler under the same rubric as Norman Mailer.

Arthur Koestler, in other words, wasn’t someone that I had to get to know right away, because he was one of those culturally immanent presences that float overhead from year to year, so constant that we don’t notice that they’ve been fading until something obliges us to look at them closely. That something, in Koestler’s case, was his suicide in 1983; which would have been unremarkable if he hadn’t been joined in the act by his younger, perfectly healthy wife. When I heard about that, I realized that I hadn’t heard Koestler’s name in quite a while, and that in fact I had never really known why he was famous.

Increasingly, fame feels like a kind of style; it is bestowed upon those who for one reason or another are in tune with the intellectual fashion of the moment. And it is withdrawn to the extent that its beneficiaries have committed themselves to looks and feels that have dated and staled. Koestler’s case is more encompassing. As Anne Applebaum notes in her review of a new biography of Koestler, the most urgent topic of Koestler’s prime has vanished from everyday discourse.

The most important change, however, is political. To put it bluntly, the deadly struggle between communism and anticommunism—the central moral issue of Koestler’s lifetime—not only no longer exists, it no longer evokes much interest. Thanks to the opening of archives, quite a few Western historians are, it is true, still investigating the history of the Soviet Union and of the international Communist movement. But outside of a few university comparative literature departments, Soviet-style Marxism itself is not a living political idea anywhere in the West. In the wake of the Lehman Brothers crash in the autumn of 2008, there were calls for a government bailout of the auto industry. No one—no major newspaper columnists, no leading politicians, no popular intellectual magazines—called upon the vanguard of the proletariat to rise up and overthrow the bourgeois capitalist exploiters. In the Europe of 1948, somebody would have done so.

What that means, though, is that the entire political context in which Koestler, Sartre, and Camus functioned—and in which Koestler’s most important works were written—is now gone.

Ms Applebaum goes on to suggest that, if Koestler is to regain anything like the fame that he enjoyed sixty years ago, it won’t be because he wrote about important things, but rather the reverse: he’ll be read, if at all, because he convinces readers that, beneath the political dramas that he addressed in his work, there is a timeless struggle between forces that bear more universal names than “communism” and “democracy” — a struggle that he understands with compelling clarity. Ms Applebaum doesn’t appear to find this eventuality very likely.

This has always been much on my mind, this “Koestler problem.” It’s one thing to be forgotten because you didn’t really grasp the issues that interested you. That’s a risk that we take knowingly when we publish an essay. What you can’t really grasp is the possibility that the issues that you address so well will fall away, and concern nobody. You can’t grasp it because you can’t see where things are going. You can guess, but you can’t see.

If you’re a journalist, you probably don’t care.

Library Note: Shelving

Sunday, January 10th, 2010


In the din of chit-chat and prognostication about digital book readers and whatnot, the idea of the library seems to have been drowned out. Technically, of course, the library will go digital along with its constituent texts, and occupy no visible space. A superb prospect! If someone offered me the contents of several major research libraries on a handful of flash drives, I’d be as giddy as a schoolboy.

The idea of the book as a disembodied object that appears only when needed is tremendously appealing. It would be wonderful if my bodied books would appear when needed! The other night, it’s true, I got very lucky: when the conversation turned to Savonarola, I was able to produce Lauro Martines’s book on the subject, Fire in the City. More typical, sadly, was the search for Marsha Colish’s Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition. The Readerware file — I was still using Readerware at the time — pointed me to a shelf that did not exist. I tore apart the history bookcase, but to no avail. It turned out that I had let M le Neveu borrow the book, and surrendered to the nutty idea that a nonexistent shelf would indicate that the book was out on loan. It was thanks only to a spot of housecleaning at his end that I put my hands on Professor Colish.

A new way of cataloguing my library occurred to me the other day: I would simply take snapshots of the ranges of books. Most of my shelves hold two rows of books, one behind the other; the block of shelves in the photo above holds three. Hence “tearing apart.” A loose-leaf notebook full of digital images of arrayed spines would be the only catalogue that I’d need, and it would take very little time to update. If I were younger, I’d probably give this notion a try, but my more experienced self thinks that it’s suspiciously easy-sounding. I don’t know what’s wrong with the idea, really, but I’m sure that there’s something — and I know that I would feel an everloving fool when I found out what it was.

The other day, Joe Jervis remarked in passing that he has never been one to amass books in order to show off his reading. Horrified, I wondered if (a) that’s what my library is all about and (b) that’s how my library strikes other people. The first doubt was easily dealt with, because I’m very unimpressed by my library, and would not think much of anyone who regarded it as extensive. For me, an impressive library is a room all four walls of which are lined with bookshelves that reach at least from hip height to the ceiling. As for what other people think, I had to admit that I’m showing off. Subject, however, to the foregoing caveat: only rubes fall for it. This is simply how the well-fed urban ego behaves.

As I toiled over piles of books this afternoon, I asked myself more than once: why do I have all these books? If it weren’t for periodic bouts of re-shelving, would I ever have occasion to touch them? It’s all very well to produce a book about Savonarola on demand, but it’s also true that nobody dropped out of the dinner-party conversation in order to read it. You could say that I demonstrated the book’s existence. As I could with somewhere between two and three thousand other volumes. Pourquoi?

I have never lived without books, but I suspect that, without the daily reminder posted by those serried dust jackets, I might forget an important part of myself — to wit, where I’ve been in this life. I’ve spent so much of it reading!

Fossil Darling, who likes to dream, promised me the other day that, if and when he wins the lottery, he will set me up in a loft vast enough to house all of my books. Quatorze frowned: “RJ doesn’t want to live in a loft.” Quite right, Q! If money were no object, I’d take a suite at one of the grand hotels and survive on room service. With room service, I wouldn’t need a library. I’d just have books sent up.

As needed.

Reading Note: Hexapla

Monday, December 28th, 2009


Now that the holiday calendar has come to a close, I’m losing no time in buckling down with the books. Although a few titles in my mammoth stacks of books appeal to me more than others, I resolved this afternoon to read what fate presented, sort of. The first book that my gaze fell upon was Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea, by Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams (Belknap, 2006). I bought the book at the Cloisters this summer, and immediately read the substantial introduction and most of the first chapter (of four). Then — well, then there was the Fall, and my life was derailed by an act of reupholstery.

CTB (as I’ll abbreviate the lengthy title) attracted me as a book about books — quite literally in this case, as the authors explore the generally-known but poorly-understood association between the establishment of Christianity and the replacement of the scroll by the codex. As I’m only halfway through the book, I can’t say where the exploration is going to lead, but in the agreeable atmosphere of the Cloisters gift shop it seemed to promise a variation on a story that’s close to my heart: the appropriation of a new technology, for which mainstream society hasn’t found a use, by the exponents of a new cultural outlook. That is why I am reading CBT. I am not terribly interested in the religious aspect of the book as such — except, of course, to the extent that the authors explode the orthodox Vatican view of early Church history, which is entirely a matter of martyrs.

CBT is a diffcult book, but it is aimed at the general reader. It does not assume any detailed knowledge of the early-Christian world of the Third Century, and it conscientiously explains what only specialists might be expected to know. The writing is cogent and lucid. But the scholarship of antiquity, so familiar-seeming from the book’s cover, is actually quite alien. One of the more influential scholars of his time, Origen was, by our standards, not much of a scholar at all, but it is not his Christianity (his belief in the inpsiring Logos) that sets him apart, as one might at first think. It is, precisely, his antiquity. His intellectual formation was in line with that of his pagan contemporaries.

Origen’s bibliographic habits fit well within the philosophical culture of the book as it emerged under the Roman Empire. The contents and scope of Origen’s collection, the uses to which he put his books, the ways he read and the genres in which he chose to write, and the social matrix that supported his work, all find strong parallels among the philosophers. Origen’s library was large and varied, yet its contents were also highly specialized, omitting many works, even entire literary genres, that were central to contemporary learned culture. Origen’s literary output was diverse, but much of it was shaped by the twin philosophical imperatives of interpretation — in Origen’s case, of the Christian Scriptures — and polemic, whether against members of one’s own school or against representatives of rival traditions. Finally, we have precious documentation both for Origen’s relations with patrons and for the concrete ways that their support enabled him to obtain and, especially, to produce books. What we find both reflects, and help us fell out, the pciture pieced together from the evident for more typical philosophers.

That documentation is precious, of course, because there isn’t very much of it, and because “Origen’s library has left no physical traces for archeology to uncover.”

The foregoing passages, taken from the first chapter of CTB, are dense but not distant. Origen’s library is made to sound familiar enough. But once the discussion turns to the Hexapla, the air begins to thin. You might almost wonder if the Hexapla actually existed. The two sets of fragments that survive do not establish the existence of the scholarly project described by Eusebius, Origen’s successor at Caesarea. This was a very emplified bilingual edition of the Hebrew Bible, presented in six parallel columns. The first column gave the Hebrew text, more or less as a list, word by word. The second consisted of a transliteration in the Greek alphabet. The remaining columns offered different Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible, with that of the Septuagint — the official Christian Bible in the Greek-speaking Church— in the fifth column.

Origen’s reasons for undertaking this project appear — by the time the authors draw their conclusions — to have been the very opposite of what you might expect. They seem, for the matter of that, to have been the opposite of Jerome’s. Jerome set himself up in Bethlehem in order to provide the Western Church with a respectable translation of the Hebrew Bible in Latin (the Vulgate). Origen looked through the other end of the telescope. Far from trying to establish a correct Greek testament by scrupulous examination of the Hebrew orignal, Origen seems to have been convinced that the Septuagint was a more “authentic” text than the Hebrew version (“prot0-Masoretic”) that was in use in Hellenized Jewish communities about three centures later. How could it be otherwise? As Origen wrote to Julius Africanus,

Are we  to believe that the same Providence which in the sacred Scriptures has taught all the churches of Christ, gave no thought to those bought with a price, for whom Christ died?”

Not very scholarly. This is precisely the sort of thinking that early philologists such as Lorenzo Valla would reject in the 1450s, not because of any doubts about the divinity of Scriptural inspiration, but because of familiarity with the waywardness of pen-wielding human hands.

It was very difficult to fix my attention on this material in the early evening, after a long and bustling weekend. I was distracted by the teasing approaches of a nap, briskly withdrawn whenever I was on the point of surrender. I had to re-read a great deal — or, to put it more exactly, I had to go back and actually read many pages that my eye had grazed. Why, exactly, was I reading this book?  

Why are you reading this entry?

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, December 10th, 2009


¶ Matins: In his review of Tyler Cowen’s Create Your Own Economy, Austin Frakt touches on what makes our working day possible. (Incidental Economist; via Marginal Revolution)

¶ Lauds: How Terry Gilliam completed The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus after Heath Ledger’s death. It wasn’t just technical. (Speakeasy)

¶ Prime: David Segal’s update on the failure to reform the ratings-agency biz in any meaningful way suggests that the conflict has little to do with lobbying (for once) but reveals a clash of visions, between bold (reckless) and cautious (ineffective). (NYT)

¶ Tierce: Bad as “fast food” is, it may be safer than the stuff that the government provides to school cafeterias. (Good)

¶ Sext: Does Mo’Nique really want that Best-Supporting-Actress Oscar? She sure sounds new to the Industry. (And the Winner Is…; via Arts Journal)

¶ Nones: The opera buffa in Honduras too a turn for the seriously dramatic on Tuesday, with the assassination General Julian Aristides Gonzalez, the Honduran drug czar. The crime opens a window on our view of the local economy. (BBC News)

¶ Vespers: Christopher Tayler (of the Guardian) visits Sir Frank Kermode on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday. (via The Second Pass)

¶ Compline: They all laughed… but everybody’s looking at Roadtown now. (treehugger; via Good)

Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009


¶ Matins: Just what we all need: China produces and sells more than 12,000,000 cars in a single year.

In a sidebar, Jorn Madslien reports that Shanghai Automotive Industries owns a majority share of Shanghai General Motors’s venture in India, leaving (American) General Motors to take “a back seat.” (BBC News)

¶ Lauds: A very interesting comment from Felix Salmon, writing about productivity/price differentials between the fine-arts and photography markets. The former has split in two, with mass-marketed items buoying a “an elite circle of valuable works.” The dynamic hasn’t been tried in photography.

¶ Prime: Alex Tabarrok writes about Project Cybersyn, an economic regulator waaaaay ahead of its time. (Marginal Revolution)

¶ Tierce: How to account for same-sex liaisons in terms of natural selection? The investigation promises to be complex and counterintuitive. Also: resistant to cross-species generalizations!

Gore Vidal has always insisted that there is really no such thing as homosexuality; perhaps he’s right after all. (New Scientist)

¶ Sext: What you need to know in order to navigate the tricky holiday shopping season: it will cost $395. (The Onion; via The Morning News)

¶ Nones: New, and with more than T-shirts: Ottomaniacs!  One thing seems clear: Turkey is finally emerging from Atatürk’s secular tutelage, a nation with imperial memories. (NYT)

¶ Vespers: At HuffPo, Alexander Nazaryan proposes Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland as the American novel of the passing decade. We heartily concur, and we nominate Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End as runner-up.  

¶ Compline: Witold Rybczynski reports that academic architects still don’t like Christopher Alexander’s patterns. (Slate; via Arts Journal)

Daily Office: Friday

Friday, December 4th, 2009


¶ Matins: In an extremely thoughtful piece that may alter the grain of your thought — or, as it our case, highlight the way in which you’re already inclined to think — Tony Judt asks us to consider why it is that, in the Anglophone world, we reduce all political questions to economic equations. He proposes a very persuasive, historically-bound answer to the question. Don’t miss it. (NYRB)

¶ Lauds: Judith Jamison is looking to trade in “artistic director” for, perhaps, “Queen.” Those of us who were lucky enough to see her dance Revelations know just how aptly that very popular ballet is titled. (New York; via Arts Journal)

¶ Prime: As the giving season is upon us, Tim Ogden plans a series of blog entries about the dangers of evaluating charities by overhead alone. (Philanthropy Action; via Felix Salmon)

¶ Tierce: Melissa Lafsky urges us to stop trying to get more women to ride bicycles in urban areas, and focus instead upon making biking a lot safer than it is. (The Infrastructurist)

¶ Sext: The things that Choire Sicha digs up on the Internets! From a blog called firmuhment, a thoroughly wicked “imagineering” of Zac Efron’s newfound, post-Orson intellectual sophistication. (via The Awl)

¶ Nones: More Honduran predictability: the Congress declined, by a very large margin, to re-instate Manuel Zelaya in office for the weeks that remain to his term. The voting, 111-14 against Mr Zelaya, suggests that the ousted president is not a character worth fighting for. (NYT)

¶ Vespers: In a backlist assessment that has the whole town talking, Natalia Antonova convinces us that she loves Vladimir Nabokov’s best-known book not in spite of her history as the victim of abuse but because of it. (The Second Pass)

¶ Compline: Because it’s the weekend, we offer Ron Rosenbaum’s long and “Mysterian” query about consciousness and other unsolved mysteries as a way of killing time in the event of any dominical longueurs. Although we agree with his assessment of the the “facts” (ie questions), we do not, so to speak, share his affect.

While we recognize — insist! — that the universe remains profoundly mysterious, it doesn’t bother us in the least, because, really, it’s much too interesting to live with the mysteries that aren’t so profound. The profundity that Mr Rosenbaum highlights for us is the connection between adolescence and all forms of metaphysics. (Slate; via Arts Journal)

¶ Bon weekend à tous!

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, November 26th, 2009


¶ Matins: Kenneth Davis writes about the first Thanksgiving to be given on land that would one day be part of the United States — by Huguenots in Florida. Their base, Fort Caroline (named after Charles IX), did not last very long; nor did they: the Spanish eradicated everything in 1565.

Mr Davis’s litany of religious persecutions in America exhorts us to regard Thanksgiving not as the commemoration of a hallowed past but as a celebration of how far we have come from our dark origins — and a reminder of how far we have yet to go. (NYT)

¶ Lauds: Charis Wilson, Edward Weston’s most notable muse (and his only “art wife”), died last Friday in Santa Cruz, aged 95. (Los Angeles Times; via Arts Journal)

As it happens, we’ve been reading about Charis Wilson in Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses. Great reading!

¶ Prime: We’re not terribly interested in the recent privatization of Chicago’s parking meters — or, rather, we weren’t until Felix Salmon decided to look into the matter. His conclusion: the city didn’t do too badly, and the contractors are idiots. The detail worth noting is that what Chicago’s alderman wanted, of course, was to raise parking meter prices without being accountable.

¶ Tierce: The Aesthete unearths the strange figure of George Sebastian, an adventurer who married American money and used it to builid Dar Sebastian, still a breathtaking edifice in Hammamet, Tunisia. (An Aesthete’s Lament)

¶ Sext: We love a good prank as much as anybody — probably more, as long as we’re not the victim — and so we’re rejoicing at the news that The Awl now has a whole department devoted to reviewing “pranks and their aftermaths.” Okay, they have Juli Weiner, who we hope is still enrolled in a good college.

¶ Nones: William Finnegan’s New Yorker excellent report on the situation in Honduras is not, sadly, online, although an abstract is available. For regular readers who have been following the matter here, there is little substantially new in the piece, and in fact we were gratified to read that coup leader Roberto Michelletti, in television appearances, “tends to glower, and speak from the side of his mouth, like Dick Cheney.” However, we hadn’t encountered anything like Mr Finnegan’s thumbnail of the constitution that ousted president “Mel” Zelaya wants to replace.

¶ Vespers: We’ve read Lauren Elkin’s review of Jeremy Davies’s Rose Alley several times now, and while we’re not certain that we want to read the novel, we’re intrigued by Ms Elkin’s account of it. (The Second Pass)

¶ Compline: Maria Popova (of Brain Pickings) takes “a look at what the Intenet is doing for learning, curiosity, and creativity outside the classroom.” There’s a lot about TED, which appears to be better understood in Europe than it is here. (Good)

To see how traditional education appears on the Internet, have a look at the Syllabus of Dr E L Skip Knox’s fully online course, sponsored by Boise State University, in HIST101 — The History of Western Civilization. (via MetaFilter)

Daily Office: Friday

Friday, November 20th, 2009


¶ Matins: Is Bob Cringely mad? His vision of the future, “Pictures in Our Heads” — well you can see where he’s going. (“And the way we’ll shortly communicate with our devices, I predict, will be through our thoughts.”) But it’s the beginning of the entry that caught our eye. The power of Mr Cringely’s assumption (with which we’re ever more inclined to agree), that the iPhone/iTouch is today’s seminal device, from which everything in the future will somehow flow, seems to mark a moment.

¶ Lauds: Isaac Butler outlines just how very hard it is to apportion praise and blame in the highly collaborative atmosphere of the theatre. Mr Butler winds up by pointing out how much easier it is to judge the performance of a classic play, because one of the variables — the text, usually unfamiliar to premiere audiences — is taken out of the problem. (Parabasis; via Arts Journal and the Guardian)

¶ Prime: Jeffrey Pfeffer discusses the “Sad State of CEO Replacement.” His remarks prompt a question: Is the typical board of directors a band of masochists in search of a dominator? The minute a self-assertive bully walks in, they tend to submit with rapture. (The Corner Office)

¶ Tierce: Dave Bry is delighted to learn that the Milwaukee M12 2410-20 won a Popular Mechanics rating for Best Small Cordless Drill (or somesuch). Not that he’s ever going to use one. (The Awl)

¶ Sext: Adam Gopnik addresses the evolution of cookbooks, from aides-mémoire intended for professionals to encyclopedias for novices, and beyond. Oakeshott and gender differences are dragged in. The recent fetish for exotic salts is explained. (The New Yorker)

¶ Nones: Another winter of discontent for Europe? Yulia Tymoshenko is cooking with gas. The new tariff will “ensure  stable supplies of gas,” quoth the prime minister. Really? (NYT)

¶ Vespers: Our favorite literary couples, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, sits for an interview with the Wall Street Journal. We knew the basics. But it’s nice to have a bit of detail. (Who knew that Pasternak’s style is “studied”?) (via The Second Pass)

¶ Compline: At NewScientist, a slideshow taken from Christopher Payne’s Asylum: Inside the closed World of State Mental Hospitals. The show, presumably like Mr Payne’s book, ends on a guardedly positive note. (via  The Morning News)

Bon weekend à tous!

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, November 19th, 2009


¶ Matins: Driving while intoxicated, and with a child in the car, will be made a felony, according to a law that has passed the New York State Assembly. Interlock devices, which block ignition when the driver’s breath carries faint amounts of alcohol, will be required for drivers convicted of driving while intoxicated. (NYT)

¶ Lauds: Lucy Lu recently celebrated the first anniversary of Met Everyday, her online report of visits to the Museum. Her list of ten things that you must see (or wings that you must visit) is personable but not surprising — with the exception of the modern-art item.

¶ Prime: Tom Bajarin’s discussion, at PCMag Mobile, of the impact of Vooks on publishing suggests to us that the author of a plain old book could do as well as a Vook developer, delivering a formatted text as an “app,” and collecting 70% of the price. (via The Tomorrow Museum)

¶ Tierce: We’ve heard of the Ithaca Hours, an alternative local currency, but we can’t imagine how anything like it would work in Manhattan. But who cares: it would be gorgeous, if these bills designed by students at the School for Visual Arts were in circulation. (via The Best Part)

¶ Sext: Will Sam Sifton be the next editor of the New York Times? It’s a very interesting rumor, considering that the gent has just been assigned to reviewing restaurants for the newspaper. We’ll say this: he has certainly dusted off the genre.

¶ Nones: For a quick and snappy resume of Palestinian politics at the moment, you probably can’t beat the Beeb’s summary. (BBC News)

¶ Vespers: V L Hartmann bumps into Joan Didion in the street — almost — and observes that in her carriage as in her prose, the author of The Year of Magical Thinking is not like “the old ladies you see up here on the East Side that are all stooped over.” (The Morning News)

¶ Compline: Conserving Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, an earthwork at the edge, and sometimes beneath the surface, of The Great Salt Lake. (NYT)