Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

18 May 2012

Friday, May 18th, 2012

The plan was to walk to the London Review Bookshop, have lunch, and walked back. We found the bookshop straightaway, although we nearly missed it at first. Outside the British Museum, I spotted a You Are Here map with a sigh of gratitude, for, having bluffed my way into the general vicinity of our destination, I now required finer details. It turned out, of course, that we had just passed Bury Place. The Bury Place entry was not good enough for me, however; I had to peer into the courtyard to find the side door, the one that figures in the film of Enduring Love. The fiction shelves are arrayed about that rear part of the shop, and within two minutes I had found two prizes: Alan Hollinghurst’s second novel, The Folding Star, which was what I’d had my heart set on finding; and a miracle, Joseph O’Neill’s second novel, The Breezes, which I’d all but given up on finding. All but given up on finding, that is, back when Netherland came out, four years ago.

Kathleen, on the other hand, demonstrated that it has been a long time since her last browse through a real bookshop. She’d still be there now, if I hadn’t pried her loose.

“Virginia Woolf lived here?” Kathleen queried in Tavistock Square. “But I thought that Bloomsbury was a slum.” It’s not hard to imagine where Kathleen got that idea. When Jessica Mitford moved to Rotherhithe with her husband, Esmond Romilly, her family thought that she was living in a slum, just as the Stephens girls’ relations must have thought of the orphans absconding eastward to Tavistock Square for lives both unmarried and unchaperoned. Kathleen was brought up to think the same sort of thing — which is more or less why she remains unfamiliar with the Upper West Side. On several occasions, she has stayed at fetching inns in the City, cosy hermit crabs in the husks of eighteenth-century buildings. And of course her parents lived in Belgravia during her father’s assignments to the British operation of his firm. But of London north of Oxford Street she knows only the Wallace Collection. Or did, until yesterday.

The You Are Here map in front of the British Museum was posted eccentrically, with west at the top and east at the bottom; it gave me quite a turn, I don’t mind telling you. Priding myself on my sense of orientation as I do, I was shocked and humiliated by the possibility that I had been walking along, ninety degrees off, for half an hour.

You’ll be wondering where my A-Z was. It would have been in my shoulder bag, of course, if it hadn’t been for Google Maps. Why pack a heavy book, I thought, when I can buy one when I’m there. I could rely on the Internet to give me an idea before setting out. Oh! Maybe you’ll be wondering where my phone was. I haven’t actually tried to use my phone. It has been turned off almost the entire time that we’ve been in Europe. I’m not sure that it works over here, but I’m not much tempted to find out one way or the other. I seem to have fallen into an uncanny valley in which small devices that do lots of amazing things are actually, essentially, and primarily tiresome.


The word “tiresome” fairly springs to my fingers, although not much else does. I’m tired. It’s tiring not to be at home. I feel as though we’ve been gone for months. Kathleen is not really feeling well (she has a sore throat, among other ailments), and although we went down to breakfast this morning I’m not sure that the rest of the day will bring her any further adventures. I myself should like to go to Chester Terrace, along Regent’s Park, where there’s an architectural folly that the American printmaker Joseph Pennell sketched a century or so ago; the print has long been one of our great treasures for more than twenty years. But how to get there? A taxi would be easiest, but I’m still trembling from the the cost of our ride in from Heathrow. The Tube is just beyond me, at least as a solitary traveler; with my immobile back downfixed head, I’m reluctant to try to find my way through Underground tunnels. (I knew my way around New York’s subways long before the ankylosing spondylitis set in.) As for walking, it’s not very far, not much farther, if farther, than Bury Place. But the Euston Road is no quaint promenade. And as if by perverse design, there are no quiet, adjacent parallels, either to the north or to the south.

In the event, we did not have lunch until we got back to the hotel. Nothing looked particularly inviting, and it was late (after three) to be looking for a meal. I was amazed to find that I could be out and about for so long without the need for a pit stop. I don’t count on the same good fortune two days’ running.


I didn’t count on it, but I had it anyway, a second successful outing. I went to Chester Terrace and took my photographs, caught a cab and asked to be taken to the British Museum, hard by Bury Place, paid another visit to the London Review Bookshop (to buy tote bags), and walked home through Brunswick Square. It was almost all very agreeable. There was a spell of disheartenment, when I wondered how far along the perimeter of Regent’s Park, in actual steps, I was going to have to go before coming upon the arches that interested me. But I found them sooner than I thought I would, and, after that, it was all a breeze.

Tomorrow, we fly back to New York, leaving in the late afternoon and arriving in the middle of the evening. There will be no posting here. If the weather isn’t terrible, I’d like us to go out for lunch — I spied lots of nice places today, simply by taking a turn at the Russell Hotel, to see if Alan Hollinghurst’s description of the back of the “Queensberry Hotel,” in The Swimming Pool Library, was a fit (it was, a perfect fit). There will be packing. And then there will come the moment when I have to pay for another 24 hours of Internet connection. At that point, the computer will have been shut down and stowed. Granted a safe voyage home, I’ll be back on Monday.

Transit, cont’d
17 May 2012

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

A room with a view it ain’t. If we were one floor higher, we would clear the western wall of the St Pancras Station shed wall — for a fine view of the shed roof, I don’t doubt. Why stay at home, alone in your room?

Until last night, I was a fairly good traveler, but a chain of confidence-draining events steadily reduced me to blubbering helplessness. I’ll skip straight to the last one, which was, in all my years of travel, a first: it took half an hour to get our bags up into the room, and two phone calls were required, including a request to identify them. As we had checked in at 11:10, and Reception was not exactly humming, this lapse was much worse than perplexing. Eventually the young night porter showed up at the door, and we were free to go downstairs for a glass of wine.

Knowing what I know of London topography (I’m cutting back to the penultimate nightmare), I expected a smooth trip along the M4 right onto the Marylebone/Euston Road: voilà! What I did not expect was a meter that climbed and climbed and climbed, soaring straight to a figure equalling the cash in pounds that we were carrying. I also did not expect a detour in the dark, and, knowing what I know of London topography, but no more, I was immediately suspicious of the genial driver — who indeed presently returned us to Westway. I felt foolish for not having taken a train, tired though I was; it’s certainly what I would have done if I’d been alone, somehow. But Kathleen would not have taken a train in any but emergency circumstances, so that cleared my conscience. But I still felt foolish for not having looked into typical taxi fares from Heathrow. This simply wasn’t the time to count on Kathleen to do so.

I’ll save for later any attempt at descriptions of this amazing old place (built as the Midland Grand Hotel, and opened for business c 1873). I’ve seen only two of the sparkling, refreshed halls. The part of the hotel in which we’re lodged is an annexe constructed at some later date, 30s or 40s I should say, although it’s conceivable that it’s altogetheer new. (It’s the deep but narrow lifts that suggests earlier times — to me.)

It’s odd to be doubly in London. I’m so deeply involved with The Swimming Pool Library that it’s shocking to look up and realize that I’m sitting in the city in which it is set. I am slowly learning that to re-read a novel while traveling is to open up its full store of wisdom, however great or small that might be. There are bits here and there in the novel about public-school hazing, and they led, de fil en anguille, to a “realization” (which can’t be altogether as novel as that word suggests, although it certainly feels so) that my father had no interest in teaching me how the world worked. This disinclination did not reflect dislike, I don’t think, but there was a sense in which only “naturals” interested him; he was very helpful to young men who displayed aptitudes for his lines of life (work, golf, and so on). He would have been more personally helpful to me (he was always instrumentally helpful, certainly) had I shown some inclination to figure things out for myself. But that’s just what I wouldn’t and won’t do, if exposing myself as a rube be a risk. I won’t, in short, be hazed. I believe that I would have had to kill any clot of amiable young men who put me through some mild torture in order to make me one of them.

I never did board a tram in Amsterdam. If I’d stayed another day, I think that I’d have made an outing of doing so, and just climbed on board with a pocket full of euros, relying on the kindness of strangers. Where we were staying, it was not easy to connect to Line 2, as in Nescio’s “alles echt lijn 2, Museumkwartier.” That would be me. But I learned that the 24 will take you to the Muntplein, which is close enough (to the Spui, of course — the center of Amsterdam for me).  

Anyway, I obliged myself to get out of bed in the gloom this morning, even though Kathleen sighed “room service” as she turned over and cuddled deeper into the bedding. I had heard the clerk mention that “breakfast was included,” and this gave a finish of virtue to a stronger desire to be up and about and out of the room. A fine continental breakfast, offering ham and cheese and just about everything except eggs, was laid along the bar in the Booking Hall, where we sat last night with our glasses of wine and talked about Gothic Revivial.

Oh! I did learn one thing in Amsterdam that I had hoped to establish: it’s Nieuw, not Nieuwe, Amsterdam. Where I live, I mean. I don’t know how the server at the hotel restaurant knew this, but she was pretty certain. She was quite wistful about the idea of the city’s still being in Dutch hands. Stand in line, sweetheart! Ik woon in Nieuw Amsterdam.


It’s not immediately apparent that Nescio and Alan Hollinghurst share anything in the way of subject matter, but from the distance of my viewpoint they do seem to have something in common, an ostensible self-disgust that in reality masks a tragic disappointment with the fit, or lack of it, between erotic life and civil conventions. It is not, to use Nicholson Baker’s great phrase, part of my carnal circuitry. In Dichtertje (Little Poet), the title character reflects on the “knowing eyes” of modern young ladies (c 1914).

Because he knew perfectly well that they didn’t know a thing, that they burst out in stupid giggles whenever he doffed his hat to them, or just stared at him, stinking of bourgeois-young-lady conceitedness. And still he couldn’t leave them alone. Then he had to flee somewhere where there were no women, and he raged against God and the devil too, and he said that he’d end up as a lunatic at this rate and sit slobbering for years with his mouth hanging open wearing a leather bib without even realizing it. But the next day he would look again, and think: “Mon âme prend son élan vers l’infini.

In the passage that I want to quote from The Swimming Pool Library, the erotico-bourgeois plexus might seem more obscure, but I’ll venture it anyway. The young Charles Nantwich has arrived in Port Said, in 1923, and is being kitted out for darker Africa.

I came to a sort of dead end, a tall, stuffy place like an airing cupboard, a store-room perhaps, with a young boy barefoot, climbing up & down the shelves, checking stock, a pressure-lamp in his raised hand, his black face concentrating, dazzling in the plane of light that he swung about him. I stayed & watched, mesmerised, feeling that nothing else mattered. Down he clambered, his supple child’s body comically bursting out of his khaki cotton uniform. When he saw me he smiled. I smiled back — though I was at the very edge of the field of light, & perhaps he cd not really see me. He kept on smiling — an immense, gentle, jolly smile — not yet a vendor’s smile, nothing calculating in it. He was a pure Negro, from far south evidently, like the people we we are going to, quite different from the crossbred scamps who haunt the quays. I turned & went back, & as I did so he called out, ‘Welcome Port Said, m’sieur’ — in a heartbreaking voice, its boy’s clarity just cracking into manhood.
I was inordinately, unaccountly moved by this — except that I knew it for what it was, a profound call of my nature, answered first at school by Webster, muffled, followed obscurely but inexorably since. Was it merely lust? Was it only baffled tdesire? I knew again, as I had known when a child myself, confronting a man for the first time, that paradox of admiration, or loss of self, of dedication … call it what you like.

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I used to wonder if there was something wrong with me, because I had never admired anyone, ever. The impulse to admire took long to develop in me, but I certainly never felt it as a child. I thought that some people were very lucky; I knew, in my scapegrace way, that I’d been very lucky. There were certainly many times when I’d have been happy to trade my good fortune for someone else’s. But admiration? When I read the Hollinghurst passage, I wondered for a moment if Nantwich were describing an emotion that only fledgling aristocrats feel. But only for a moment.

I remember long, long ago complaining about the pride that John Fowles’s characters seem to take in their disaffection from everyday life. My good manners are hardly invariable, but I’ve always thought that it was an act of rudeness in itself to disdain them, as if one were somehow too intelligent or sensitive or whatnot to observe them, or at least to try. It struck me, twenty-odd years ago, when The Swimming Pool Library was new and I read it the first time, that Will Beckwith, Hollinghurst’s hero, was uncivil in just this way (beneath the gloss of fine manners indeed), and I disliked him for it. Now I’m not so bothered. I suppose that that’s a sign that I’ve stopped growing up, stopped looking to other people to figure out to live — and fuming when the example set by the more attractive ones among them suggests that I’m heading in the wrong direction. With old age comes a certain calm.

As long as you don’t have to go through Heathrow.

16 May 2012

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

The Rijksmuseum was on my list of things to see in Amsterdam, but I’m afraid that I’m going to miss it. We got going this morning rather too late for an outing of that kind, and, even if time were not an issue, my legs wouldn’t carry me through. As it was, I had just enough élan vital to walk up to the café in the Gerard Douplein (De Pfaardje) that Kathleen and I lunched at on Monday — not quite to the Singelgraacht, in other words — and my quads gave me a fair amount of pain on the stroll back. I was very glad to get back to the hotel.


At Scheltema yesterday, I cast about for something to read — something to re-read, really. I packed as little in the way of fiction as I could: the Amsterdam Stories of Nescio, which were such a pleasure to read; Paul Torday’s More Than You Can Say, a brisk homage to John Buchan; and Coral Glynn, just in case: I mean to re-read James Cameron’s new book at some point. I knew that I’d be visiting Amsterdam’s excellent bookshops, not to mention Hatchard’s, in London, and that there was no need to try to anticipate my mood while on the road — always difficult and usually vain. As it happened, yesterday found me in a mood for Henry James. Ideally, I’d have bought The Princess Casamassima, which I’m in the middle of re-reading at home, and then left the book behind me in London, but it wasn’t on offer. (Only two James titles were, The Portrait of a Lady, which feels too familiar at the moment, for some reason; and What Maisie Knew, which I am keen to re-read, but not while traveling, because the prose is perhaps James’s most demanding.) Similarly, I’d have picked up Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, but I wasn’t in the mood for The House of Mirth, much less Ethan Frome. I considered trying Jennifer Egan in Dutch, but that hasn’t happened yet; and when I looked at the lineup of Ian McEwans, I was poked by the reminder of Bootekleid (Atonement), which has sat undisturbed on my bookshelf for ten years. In the end, I settled on The Swimming Pool Library (in English), by Alan Hollinghurst.

I disliked The Swimming Pool Library when it came out. I found the “gay culture” aspect of the book irritating. Not the sex or the romance of the longing or the bad behavior — not any of that, but the queeny backchat of the cruisers in the club locker room and the fumbling around in the “cottages.” It doesn’t bother me so much now, because it’s vaguely historical; there is no longer any need, in the interesting parts of the world, for gay ghettos and their ways. Homosexuality may still be a vice in some eyes, but it is no secret, and the furtive appropriation of female pronouns, possibly the most perverted practice ever resorted to, has largely ceased. (I continue to find the word “darling” grating, but it really doesn’t matter who’s saying it; it’s the word’s breezy insincerity that I can’t stand.) This time, in any case, I’m enjoying the novel for the beautifully-written masterpiece that it is, and shouldering its sadness without grudging the occasional rough edge.

Nantwich proved to be a voracious eater with poor table manners. Half the time he ate with his mouth open, affording me a generous view of masticated pork and apple sauce, which he smeared around his wine glass when he drank without wiping his lips. I attended to my trout with a kind of surgical distaste. Its slightly open barbed mouth and its tiny round eye, which had half erupted while grilling, like the core of a pustule, were unusually recriminatory. I sliced the head off and put it on my side-plate and then proceeded to remove the pale flesh from the bones with the flat of my knife. It was quite flavourless, except that, where its innards had been imperfectly removed, silvery traces of roe gave it an unpleasant bitterness.

Aside from the apt comparison of the popped eye to a blemish, there’s not a metaphor in sight.  


Last night, I was graciously permitted to join Kathleen on a canal-boat excursion that filled, I think, four or five floating cocktail lounges. (The convention that brought Kathleen to Amsterdam gets bigger every year.) We were picked up and dropped at the hotel’s landing, on the Amstelkanaal, and a very nice little tour we had. Aside from a strange pause in the Kloveniersburgwal, it was smooth sailing in several directions, from the canals around the Artis/Zoo to the Herengracht — how grand the grand houses seem from water level! — the Leidsegracht, a bit of the Singelgracht, and home via a radial canal whose name I can’t determine. (It is bordered, not particularly charmingly, by the Hobbemakade and the Ruysdaelkade.) We had several pleasant chats, one of them with a young American from London who must have been a boy when the first Exchange Traded Fund, midwifed by Kathleen, came onto the market. Kathleen was sure that we’d never been able to get a table at the “affordable” restaurant in the lobby, what with hundreds of men debouching all at once, but my doubts proved correct: for it’s not the sort of place that average sensual financial services provider wants to spend money on unless there’s a lady involved. (And I was the only spouse.) When, for the second time, I said “Tot ziens!” to our server, I really meant it, although I have no idea of ever coming back.

“Maar ik ben ook God maar.”
14 May 2012

Monday, May 14th, 2012

The world wasn’t ready for Nescio. I’m speaking of the writer who wasn’t well known even in the Netherlands until after his death, at the age of 79, in 1961. In 1961, the world was not even ready for the Beats, the idealistic young men whose future Nescio foretold in less than a handful of stories written before World War I. His predictions have been so completely established by experience that idealistic young men are now more likely to be seen as self-indulgent than as high-minded. This would have saddened him. He liked to think that the future would turn out endless generations of idealistic young men, sitting on the shore and dreaming about capturing the sun, or “blowing up all the offices,” even if he knew that the luckier among them would wind up prospering, as he did, in those very offices.

Gods tron is nog ongeschokt. Zijn wereld gaat haar gang maar. Af en toe glimlacht God even om de gewichtige heeren, di denken dat ze heel wat beteekenen. Nieuwe Titaantjes zijn al weer bezig kleine rotsblokjes op te stapelen om ‘m van z’n verhevenheid te storten en dan de wereld eens naar hun zin in te richten. Hij lacht maar en denkt: ‘Goed zoo jongers, zoo mal als je bent, ben je me toch liever dan die mooie wijze heeren. ‘t Spijt me dat je je nek moet breken en dat ik die heeren moet laten gedijen, maar ik ben ook God maar.’ En zoo gaat alles z’n gangetje en wee hem die vraagt: Waarom?


God’s throne is still unshaken. His world just takes its course. Now and then God smiles for a moment about the important gentlemen who think they’re really something. A new batch of little Titans are still busy piling up little boulders so that they can topple him down off his heights and arrange the world the way they think it should be. He only laughs, and thinks: “That’s good, boys. You may be crazy but I still like you better than the proper, sensible gentlemen. I’m sorry you have to break your necks and I have to let the gentlemen thrive, but I’m only God.”

And so everything takes its little course, and woe to those who who ask: Why?

That is the end of Titaantjes (Young Titans), the second of three (or four) early short stories upon which Nescio’s reputation largely rests. (The English rendering is by Damion Searls; it appears in NYRB’s collection, Amsterdam Stories.) If there are still any young titans piling up rocks anywhere, they probably have no higher view than storming the Internet and setting it to rights. Which they may in fact do. The Twentieth Century taught us that our ideals especially must be realistic. Otherwise we wind up in a sanitarium, like Bavink, the young titan who loses his grip just as his paintings begin to command high prices, or else collaborating enthusiastically with Nazis. (Fritz Grönloh, the man behind Nescio, spent the Occupation in retirement; he was almost sixty when it began.) We have to begin by taking people as they are.

Which is what makes these stories so endearing. Idealistic young men aren’t particularly well-behaved, and their habits tend toward the slovenly; their manners excite the impatience of everyone who has found a settled place in the world. But not Nescio’s. He may have put utopian dreams behind him, but he has not drawn a line beneath the innocent hope of young dreamers. Innocence makes them, like the lilies of the field, beloved of God, who, in Nescio’s view, prefers them to hardworking meritocrats. Just so long as they outgrow that innocence, and stop asking “Why?”

No: when Grönloh died, the youth of all the Western world was about to embark on a prolonged Titanic project that, happily, wore away in the tides of time, and never got high enough to collapse and cause damage. Nobody would have wanted to read Nescio then — nobody except the oldsters who smiled now and then.   


It is almost noon, and I shall shortly have to decide where the day is going. This evening, Kathleen has a dinner at the Hotel de l’Europe (where I’ve always wanted to stay), but until then, she is free to be as tired as she feels. I, however, am wondering about lunch. Our hotel has no simple in-and-out coffee shop; plain food is available only via room service. There is a McDonald’s just up the road, but after yesterday’s long outing I’m not feeling particularly adventurous. With luck, I’ll rouse Kathleen to take a walk over to the Sarphati Park, in the center of De Pijp, at some point in the afternoon. If she is too tired for that, I shall go by myself. Now that I’ve announced all these possible plans, I wonder what will actually happen.



13 May 2012

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

We are not staying at the Hotel American, but we have a painting of it in our living room at home, so of course I had to try to get a better photograph of it than the one I took ten years ago.

On our first non-travel day in Amsterdam on this, my second trip to Amsterdam, I managed without really intending to do so to recapitulate everything that I liked about the first visit. Kathleen and I walked from our hotel, at the southern edge of De Pijp, to the Dam and back, and we never retraced our steps to any significant degree. (Strictly speaking, I believe, we did not retrace any steps at all aside from the Singel embankment between the Leidestraat and the Spui.) But I had been almost everywhere before, and almost everywhere that we went had a personal resonance. Take the Leidestraaat itself: how many times did I walk up and down that street ten years ago? Probably fewer than a dozen, but it felt more like a semester’s worth. With the Athenaeum, the American Book Center, and Waterstone’s, the Spui is something of a book district, and it is also the home of the Café Luxembourg, which I patronised often enough last time to regard it as a personal hang-out. On the way home, I realized that Van Baerlestraat, which Kathleen wanted to pass along in search of a stop that she liked, constituted close to a bee-line between the Leidesplein (where I’d thought about making a rest stop at the American) and our hotel. We had walked much of the street the last time I was here (this is Kathleen’s fifth visit) because I’d cajoled Kathleen into seeing an exhibition of maps of Amsterdam at the Municipal Archives — rather more of a walk than Kathleen, not quite as keen about cartography as I am, had in mind. (Van Baerlestraat is also the address of the Concertgebouw, which I have yet to get inside of; and it forms the southern edge of the big lawn behind the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum.) Since my goals for the day were modest — I wanted (a) to buy a copy of the writings of J H F Grönloh, formally known as “Nescio” (pronounced, I now know for sure, “Nessio”), and (b) to have lunch at the Luxembourg — my success left me without any further ideas, and the sheer favorable drift of the rest of the day was an unimagined gift.

There were a couple of new things. We walked into the Begijnhof, about which, for the moment, I am only going to say that it’s a good thing that there wasn’t one in New York City thirty years ago, because I don’t think that Kathleen would have married me if something like it had been an option. (“Hard to say,” was Kathleen’s opinion.) And we walked down the Kalverstraat, which, according to an article in the Times, is “Amsterdam’s busiest shopping street.” Yes, it probably is! But I had been mislead by the reporter’s conversation with a sales clerk specialising in Mont Blanc pens into the sloppy conclusion that “busiest” meant “most luxurious.” That, it definitely is not. It has been a long time since my last visit to an American shopping mall, but that’s what the emporia of the Kalverstraat brought to mind. I ought to have known better, because I walked along the Pieter Cornelisz Hoofstraat a few times in 2002 (it was right round the corner from our hotel at the time), and that’s where the Gucci shop is. Not anywhere near Kalverstraat, which is tat from end to end.


At the Athenaeum newsstand, which was open at 11:55, when we reached the Spui and found that the Athenaeum itself doesn’t open until noon on Sunday, I bought a copy of Het Parool, the newspaper that I adopted ten years ago, and read the following headline: “Amsterdam moet nog veel meer extra bezuinigen,” and I understood it well enough (with a little help from my grasp of current affairs) to know that the last word, which I didn’t recognize, must mean something like “to go on a diet.” Which it does, actually; it means “to economize.” (I was able to buy a handy dictionary right after lunch; knowing that I’d buy new ones anyway, I had left my collection at home.) I was amazed, all day, by how intelligible the local language was. Years of desultorily listening to Teach Yourself Dutch have apparently opened a crack in my brain through which something like familiarity has seeped. Asking myself why I study a language all the educated speakers of which make sure to speak English — and I’m not the only one asking — I have to answer, simply, that I find the language gezellig. That’s one of those untranslatable terms that means much more than its accepted equivalents in English, which in this case include “sociable” and “companionable.”

Amsterdam is certainly the most sociable and companionable city that I’ve ever been to. This isn’t to say that it’s friendly — that’s an American misunderstanding of the facts of life. We can all have only so many friends; the trick is to enjoy living among people who aren’t — and to make sure that they enjoy living with us. There is no contradiction, in this wonderful town, between “civil” and “comfortable,” no sense of constraint about the former that puts the latter off the menu.

Everyone has been very nice about my stabs at Dutch. (Most clerks and servers seem to think that I’m Dutch to begin with, for some reason.) I don’t think that I could say anything intrinsically interesting, but that’s not the point. I’m not called on to say interesting things to people whom I don’t know very well; how obnoxious I would be if I thought that I were. 

12 May 2012

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

We’re exhausted, but we’re here, and this look out the hotel room made me wish that I could forget what a pill I was last week, about traveling. On the plane over the Atlantic, I filled more than half of a Field Notes Memo Book with a scrawled stream of consciousness in which I did propose some plausible explanations — plausible to me, anyway. If the plausibility doesn’t evaporate, I’ll share my thoughts. But not right now.

We were so famished when we arrived at the hotel that we went straight to one of the dining rooms for a late lunch. I struck up an accord with the server by pronouncing the soft-shell crab salad that I ordered “mooi.” She breezed by the table later and asked, simply, “Lekker?” I said “Yes!” (hopeless). I asked for “de rekening, altsublieft,” and said “Tot ziens” on my way out. At no point was I buried alive with Dutch that I couldn’t understand. So there’s some ice that got broken.

More anon. I can barely think straight; I’ve been awake for over twenty-four hours.

Weekend Update (Sunday Edition): Leon of Venice

Sunday, April 26th, 2009


On Friday evening, both Kathleen and I went over to the Upper West Side branch of Barnes & Noble to be on hand when Donna Leon appeared. Kathleen’s manifest interest ought to be all the recommendation that you need to start reading Ms Leon’s Commissario Brunetti novels. They were recommended by one of Kathleen’s clients well over ten years ago, but, having passed the tip on to me, Kathleen didn’t look into the books herself until quite recently, whereupon she became a big fan.

The place was packed. It was clear that Ms Leon’s readership had made the logarithmic jump between 82nd Street and Union Square. True, everyone was older than we were, or nearly. But if Ms Leon has younger fans, you can’t expect them to let themselves be caught dead on the Upper West Side on a Friday night. It was wonderfully idiotic of B & N to pipe an invitation to the reading through the store not once but twice after the event space became almost too crowded for safety. The events manageress did come up with an ingenious idea for getting rid of people: she warned us that a German television team would be filming the event. Anyone who didn’t want to be caught on German television ought, therefore, to leave. Once upon a time, a clutch of principled Upper West Siders would have marched out. But that was our parents’ generation.

For those of you who thirst for information about the Leon of Venice, I report the following items:

  • Signorina Elettra is based on Roberta’s aunt. And she gets her name from the aunt’s mother. Something like that. The aunt was working for an executive of the Banco d’Italia’s Venice branch during the period of South African proscription. One day, when her boss asked her to take a letter to a banker in J’burg, the aunt “declined.” To the apoplectic banker she sliced the air with her hands. “I am going to leave now, and have a cup of coffee. You can organize your thoughts, and, when I return, we will do something else.” When Ms Leon heard this story, she knew she had the right secretary for Vice-Questore Patta.
  • There will be a Paola Brunetti cookbook. It will appear in German later this year and in English in 2010. The recipes will be written by Ms Leon’s best friend, Roberta, who has served not only as Ms Leon’s reason for being in Venice (“I’d have settled wherever she and Franco” — Roberta’s husband — “lived”) but also as the inspiration for Paola’s quite fantastic lunchtime menus.
  • Ms Leon recently took four meetings in London with prospective producers of Brunetti videos. She has a favorite — which means that she has no objection to adapting her novels for the screen (and why would she, since the whole Brunetti business supports her true love, Il complesso barocco, an opera company noted for its Handel recordings, which, if you are a Brunetti fan, you will buy).
  • The Teatro la Fenice mounts operas about thirty nights in the year. The Spoleto Festival doesn’t pay its bills — claiming that everybody performs pro bono. For these reasons, Ms Leon’s opera company does not work in Italy.
  • Translations of the Brunetti books into Italian remain unauthorized. Ms Leon is, quite rightly, I think, convinced that Italian-language readers (as distinct from Italian readers of German or English) would devote themselves to pointing out that she understands nothing of life in Venice — not really.
  • Like Paola, Ms Leon is a smartass. At a Fourth of July party on the Grand Canal, given by a rich American woman, with the kind of guests that rich American women attract, someone who couldn’t remember Ezra Pound’s name asked, “Who was that crazy old guy who supported the fascists?” As if compelled by Tourette’s, Ms Leon replied, “Ronald Reagan.”

Daily Office: Monday

Monday, February 16th, 2009


¶ Matins: Alex Williams’ cheeky piece, “Bad Economy? Good Excuse,” seems to me to capture something about the Zeitgeist that is being overlooked. Isn’t it possible that a good deal of downsizing going on throughout the markets is motivated not by panic or uncertainty but by a desire to pass a lot of the gas that the economy has been building up for fifteen or twenty years (or more)?

¶ Lauds: Regular readers will know that Lauds is for the arts that are not literary — but even so, Laura Cahill’s “readable furniture” seems closer to the library than to the gallery. (via Survival of the Book)

¶ Prime: You know how people have their pictures taken by the Campanile in Pisa, so that it looks as if they’re holding it up, ha-ha. Pseudo Jeff at Ads Are Boring snapped photos of people while they were posing, but the posing is all that you see in his images, not the “joke.” Don’t they look silly!

¶ Tierce: I’ve kicked off yet another category of blog entries: Capital Sins. This will be the rubric for the various manifestations of American anti-humanism, much of which appears to be one kind of racism or another. With its bloated prisons, the United States is clearly going about crime & punishment in a very bad way. Illegal mmigration is another matter that, try as they might, critics can never persuasively sell as a merely economic problem. An editorial in yesterday’s Times shows why.

¶ Sext: The funniest thing that I’ve read in these unfunny times is Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s Letter from Frankfurt in the current issue of Harper’s, The Last Book Party.” The piece is funny even before the reporter gets to the Messe.  

That is, contemporary late-corporate publishing is a fallen world in which Lauren Weisberger, author of The Devil Wears Prada, gets really rich, while Richard Ford, one of the indisputably important novelists of our time, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Independence Day and The Sportswriter, gets slightly less rich. None of the elegists say: What is coming to an end is the idea that Richard Ford is going to be richer than Lauren Weisberger. None of them say: What is coming to an end is the wishful insistence — for it is, ultimately, a wish, deeply felt, by a lot of people—that Richard Ford is going to be rich at all.

¶ Nones: The highest court in France has acknowledged the state’s responsibility in the deportation of 76,000 Jews to prison (and death) between 1942 and 1944.

¶ Vespers: At Emdashes, Martin Schneider writes about that singular anomaly, the smart person who “hates” The New Yorker. Matthew Yglesias, it turns out, is one such — although he has “caved.”

¶ Compline: You just know that a 4% sales tax is going to chill purchases of online porn. Mean old Governor Paterson! (Thanks, Joe.)


Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008


¶ Matins: Head scarves for women — in Turkey! How transgressive! But, wait: Does this mean that Orhan Pamuk completely fabricated the head-scarf controversy that kicks off his last novel, Snow? It was translated into English, by the way, four years ago.

¶ Prime: Once again, Kathleen and I will be spending Thanksgiving at a pleasant old place on St Croix. But if it weren’t so far away, I’d prefer to do my beachcoming along the Gill Sands, on that remote and longed-for Indian Island jewel, San Serriffe.

¶ Tierce: I thought that it would be very clever to say that I’m having my head examined today, but I Googled the phrase first, and it led me to the creator of FeedDemon. I don’t know anything about this app, but it looks very useful. Unfortunately, as a head case, I can’t deal with technology today — I’m leaving that to the doctors.

¶ Vespers: Wow! Christopher Buckley has (a) endorsed Barack Obama and (b) resigned from The National Review. (Thanks, evilganome.)


Home, Sweet Home

Saturday, June 21st, 2008

Shown here: no more than a paltry simulacrum of the intense brilliance that blasted down, more light than heat, onto the terrace at the Huntington on Thursday morning.

We’re home. We reached the apartment at about twenty of eight. Our flight was delayed at LAX for an hour due to a problem with one of the engines that may have required no more than a system reboot. I shrug it off now, but not knowing how long we’d be detained, or even if &c &c, was close to unbearable. I just about managed to bear it.

Sometime after 4 AM, EST, with more than two hours to go, I looked round and saw that mine was the only light on. Everyone else was either asleep or considerate.