Archive for the ‘Weekend’ Category

August Weekend:
Guillaume le Conquérant
18-19 August 2012

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night become the touches of sweet harmony.

We’re here, and, amazingly, at 10:15, we’re all still awake. There has been a diaper emergency. Ryan has sped off to the town to see what can be bought. Meanwhile, Will is, incredibly, operational. And so am I, even more incredibly, given the little list of Things That I Forgot, the only significant lapse being the cable that connects the camera to the computer — a lapse that Ryan redressed with magic from his own backpack.

Kathleen is reading Green Eggs and Ham to Will while Megan has a moment of regroupment. We are all incredibly content. Ryan agreed with me: it’s as though the time between now and our last time here had been shoved into a closet. Not forgotten, but so not real.

There’s a loft, over the bedroom where Megan and Ryan will stay (a bed with a tester!). Will has decided that the loft is “his house.” His parents are wonderfully game.


I did have an amazing day: everything went as it ought. Once we were established in the house, I set out for food and booze, and decided to separate the missions. So I went out for booze, and then I went out for food. My head was an airport. It will take a day or two to settle down into the mode of being still, not traveling.  

Meanwhile, Will, who will be here for a week, is having the highest of holidays. All of us are convinced that he is the one important person in the room.


If Saturday was the day of arrival, Sunday has been the day of settling in — cooking, dishwashing, and laundry. All pursued with such enthusiasm that my cell phone got laundered along with the towels. My fault exlusively. I realized what I’d done shortly after the point of no return. I’ve resolved myself to a few days without a phone. I haven’t had a fit. But I’m shaken and disturbed.

The governing idea of a month by the sea — and, by the way, we have yet to walk down the lane to the ocean — is simplicity, the toughest of all standards for anyone not obliged by need and lack of options to observe it. If deprivation is a human condition characterized by preoccupation with the things that are lacked, where does simplicity shift from boon to burden? 

My brain is still an airport, and at the same time a plane seeking to land. s


This morning (Sunday), I finished a dandy little book by Malcolm Balen, A Very English Deceit. It’s a brisk account of the South Sea Bubble that exploded in England in 1720, later in the same year that a similar plutomania blew up in France. (Confusingly, the Banque de France and the Mississippi Company, headquartered in Paris’s rue Quincampoix, were the brainchildren of Scotsman John Law, a fugitive from English justice after the death of a romantic rival in an impetuous duel. Law did not return to England until the 1740s, after the fall of Walpole, when he was able to purchase a pardon for £10,000. Just to keep one’s head spinning, Law is buried at San Moisè, in Venice.) The episode takes its name from the South Sea Company, set up in 1711, by Tory leader Robert Harley, as a trading operation that would challenge the domination of existing Whig institutions, the Bank of England and the East India Company. Nine years later, and now just as Whig as they, the South Sea Company stepped forward with an ingenious scheme for eliminating the staggering national debt. Balen explains this scheme lucidly, and he also explains how something so hare-brained ever attained Parliamentary imprimatur. In other words, he tells a tale for our times, of corrrupt government toleration, and even encouragement, of fraudulent finance.

Edward Pearce’s book about the Walpole ministry made me realize that I had to find a book that focused on the South Sea Bubble itself, in order to organize the litter of information deposited by histories to which the catastrophe was incidental. (Charles Mackay’s well-known 1841 retelling is long on drama but short on mechanics.) Subtitled “The South Sea Bubble and the World’s First Great Financial Scandal,” Balen’s book was occasioned, as it were, by the dotcom bust of 2001. The author, a journalist with sometime berths at ITV and the BBC, acknowledges his debt to John Carswell’s 1993 study of the Bubble, which he clearly has no intention of superseding. A Very English Deceit is not really history; it’s reportage of the highest Vanity Fair quality. Which is precisely what one wants in a case like this. As an accounting of the actions and intentions of individual men — real history — Balen’s book is arguably second-rate. Having read a number of books, just in the past year, about English politics in the first half of the Eighteenth Century, I must say that I find Balen’s characterizations of the leading players, from George I to Robert Knight (and, when you know who Robert Knight was, you know what the scandal was all about), are either crude or cursory. Balen’s ball, however, is not the individual players but the game itself, and Balen shines as a financial sportscaster. The following passage, depicting the very crest-into-crash of the wave, gives a good idea of Balen’s comfortably engaging style.

Despite the gullibility of the investors and the apparent success of the share launch, however, Blunt was facing a severe cash-flow problem. Without an even faster inflow of money, there simply wasn’t enough cash … to support the share price, and if the share price could not be supported then the illusion he had created for the last six months would be shattered. Accordingly, he found a way of demonstrating his supposed confidence in the Company’s future. On 30 August he persuaded the Court of Directors to vote for an absurdly generous Christmas dividend of 30 per cent, accompanied by the astonishing promise that the annual dividend for a decade would be 50 per cent. The offer of such an extraordinary dividend was an attempt, though far too late in the day, to persuade investors to keep their money in the Comapny for the long term, rather than indulging in the short-termism that had marked the attitude of shareholders in the other bubbles. But to be in a position to pay such amounts, its shareholders could calculate, the Company would have to make at least a £15 million profit each year.

The effect was not as Blunt had intended. It was as if someone had thrown a bucketful of cold water over the investors, who had so blindly followed his charismatic financial leadership. They stood blinking and disbelieving at what they saw before them: a company whose trading prospects had been nonexistent in the past, and would be nonexistent in the future; a company whose proposed dividend implied such extraordinary annual profits that anyone with any sense could now see that it simply could not trade on the multimillion-pound scale which the offer to shareholders suggested; a commpany which was, quite nakedly, a machine for making a profit out of debt reclamation, and not a trading company at all; a company which still had a third of the national debt to sell, and whose chances of doing so were receding by the hour. “Sir,” wrote a sceptical correspondent to one newspaper, “South Sea is very sick, a premium of 50 per cent has been applied as a cordial for revival, but it won’t do; the old woman droops still.”

More intriguing, for me, than the familiar ride of boom and bust is the wonder of Walpole’s cunning transmutation of national disaster into the longest, as well as the first, premiership in British history. Walpole stage-managed the short-term resolution of the shock in such a way that the power structure that he intended to control was not itself damaged; this meant shielding a number of Very Important People, not exluding His Britannic Majesty. It meant making sure that the British government’s official call for the extradition of Robert Knight was diplomatically flouted by officials of the Holy Roman Empire; as keeper of the “little green book,” Knight was like the accountant who exposed Al Capone as a tax cheat, only, in this case, with the government in the gangster’s seat. Walpole decided which malefactors got to walk and which were pilloried and subjected to clawback. (One South Sea functionary was left with only £31, which seems a bit heartless.) And the irony of it was that Walpole’s position as Mr Clean owed entirely to his personal banker’s sensible refusal to follow Walpole’s instructions to pour money into South Sea at the peak. It is difficult to think of other opportunists on the scale of Sir Robert Walpole. Even Balen, who regards almost everyone in his book as some kind of knave (Earl Stanhope excepted), cannot avoid sounding impressed. “Walpole had protected King and country, preserved the Whig hegemony, and had made himself the indissoluble element that bound all three together.” You can’t think of studying politics without him.  

Weekend Note:
Sitting on Ready
11-12 August 2012

Saturday, August 11th, 2012

The week ended on a nice note: the blood test that I took on Friday morning came back “normal,” giving the green light, in the late afternoon, to Tuesday’s Remicade infusion. I did not fret overmuch about the alternative outcome, but I did go to the movies simply to divert my attention. Otherwise, I don’t think that I’d have seen The Campaign in the theatre. But it was the only thing showing up here, and the time was right, so I went and laughed. The best thing about the whole movie is the “Dermot Mulroney” joke at the end. The next-best thing is the name borne by the wicked jillionaire brothers who plot to buy elections: Motch. Rhymes with… 

Packages in the mail this week: two Library of America volumes that I’m not going to specify because it’s embarrassing that I didn’t them already, and Tom Scocca’s Beijing Welcomes You. Kirsten Potter reading Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, unabridged. My Beautiful Laundrette (DVD). Graham Hodge’s Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver. And a new, “big” London A-Z, complete with Heathrow’s Terminal 5 on a page that’s tacked on at the end. Also new: I didn’t realize that Belgravia and Kensington are not included in the congestion-charging zone.


The thing about the blood test was my platelet count.

Have I mentioned the cucumber salad that I developed earlier this summer? It is simplicity itself — if you have the special mystery ingredient on hand. This is one of those New York specials, a no-work, I-hate-to-cook showpiece that depends on a bottled concoction that’s probably hard to find outside big cities. This one comes from a Belgian manufacturer called Belbery, and the product is Fresh Lime Vinegar. (“Belbery” is somewhat easy to overlook on the label; what you won’t miss is “Royal Collection”.) Even if you don’t want to make my cucumber salad, I urge you to find a bottle of this stuff, because it gives new lease — summer’s lease, certainly — to salad dressings. Because it is slightly viscous, it has the feel of oil without the heft. In my cucumber salad, there is no oil at all.

All you need, beside the Fresh Lime Vinegar is a radish or two, a peeled seedless (hydroponic) cucumber, a box grater and a bowl. Slice the cucumber into the bowl, using the grater’s mandoline blade. Then grate the radish. Stir to combine. I know when I’ve got the combination right when the blend of pink and green becomes a sort of Chinese-New- Year-goes-Newport. Then toss with a dollop of Fresh Lime Vinegar and twists of salt and pepper. Voilà.

Because there is no oil, this salad is a welcome accompaniment to cheese dishes.


Ordinarily, I’d have scheduled my next Remicade infusion for the middle of September — within a day or so of coming back from Fire Island. And that was the rub. My régime of widely-spaced infusions entails the risk (but not the certainty) of feeling rather low for five to ten days at the end of the interval. I did not want to risk feeling low for the last five or ten days of vacation, especially since the very last days would involve packing up to go home. So I decided to “go regular” for a change, and go in for the infusion before vacation. (Eight weeks is the normal interval.) Rescheduling the infusion was a bit of a hassle, but it got taken care of, and I went in on Friday morning for the pre-infusion checkup. That’s when the platelets came up.

I’ve been reading Tom Scocca for a few years, first at The Awl, then on his own site, and then, less often, at Slate. When I saw that he had a book coming out about Beijing’s ambitious plans for hosting the 2008 Olympics, I ordered it immediately, and, when it came, I opened it up immediately. I’m finding Welcome to Beijing to be wonderfully entertaining, but I am reminded on every page that I would probably not get along in Scocca’s company. This is not at all unpleasant, however. No get-togethers are in the offing, and I’m free to appreciate his sensibility without worrying about his judging mine. That’s it, you see: I’m pretty sure that he would not think much of me. Put it this way: I can share his sense of humor, but I don’t think that he would share mine. He is not a giggler like me. He is not tickled by the foolishness of human vanity and aspiration. I won’t try to characterize what his reponse is, but I’ll just say that “tickled” doesn’t describe it. I’m afraid that my giggling might strike him as heartless or lightheaded. Perhaps it is.

And then of course there is sport, which Scocca is interested in. I must say that there has been very little of it in the book. We’ll see how that continues, but for the moment I’m impressed by his treatment of athletic performance as beside the point: Welcome to Beijing is a book about showing off, not earning gold medals.

In any case, Tom Scocca writes like a god: strong and clear but replete. Like Edward St Aubyn, he registers Evelyn Waugh’s shock at the baroque insanity of things, but with the gravitas and imperturbability of Hemingway. You get the feeling that he could kick as hard as H L Mencken, but you don’t feel that his never quite doing so is a shortcoming. Somewhere in the background, I suspect, is a passion for Mark Twain. 


Kathleen was more worried about the platelet count interfering with my infusion than I was, although I didn’t find this out until later, after I’d received the go-ahead from the doctor’s office. She did “a little research” after I called her to report the morning’s uncertainty, and she concluded, as my internist had already done, that Remicade often causes platelet counts to drop. Indeed, my platelet count took a plunge right after my first infusion, in 2004. But the rheumatologist didn’t have the pre-infusion blood tests. His concern, two months ago after the last infusion, was a relatively small drop in the count, a fraction of the 2004 fall-off. So I took the blood test to my internist in early July, and he showed me the bigger picture. He advised me to monitor any bleeding, checking to see whether it was taking longer to stop. I give myself a good kitchen cut at least once every two months. Blood loss does not appear to have increased. I didn’t give the platelet count another thought until Friday. Uh-oh. But, in the end, as I said at the top, o-kay.

A staggering treat: having finished up the tidying on Saturday and relaxed for a few hours with Tom Scocca’s book about positive thinking in China, I came into the blue room to dress for dinner — we were going out. I clicked onto a cocktail hour playlist that I’ve been developing, and what d’you suppose came on? Morton Gould’s wicked deconstruction of “Limehouse Blues,” a chart that opens with a nosegay of Charlie-Chan clichés. I had to listen to it five times before I could bring myself to leave.


Because of the need to stay infection-free before a Remicade infusion, I didn’t see Will over the weekend.

But I did finish Tom Scocca’s book; and then, I finished Edward Pearce’s book about Sir Robert Walpole, not a biography really but a study of the first Prime Ministership, if that’s the word. Pearce is full of fun, with donnish references to everything from The Mikado to The Pickwick Papers. (Like everyone else who writes about British history these days, he refers to, if he doesn’t actually cite, 1066 and All That.) Then Kathleen and I went out to dinner and I spilled the beans about my writing project, which was conceived last summer but which underwent an amazingly creative buckle just this past week, in time for me to go out into the desert (Fire Island) and work on it some more. I made a list, this morning, of topics that I wanted to be sure to include, but it was only when I added a fifth item to the list that I realized that I had the titles of my chapters.

I told Kathleen about it only because I was worried that she’d find me preoccupied, thinking about something that I wasn’t talking about. Now I have to work a bit harder, against that bit of sharing.

Sport turned out to be the only explanation for the treatment of his enemies by Sir Robert Walpole. Edward Pearce and biographer J H Plumb wrote of a “coarsening of the fibers,” but no one as sensitive to the nuance of Parliamentary debate as Walpole was could be fairly dismised as “coarse.” Coarse people aren’t capable or Walpole’s command of sane discourse. Pearce is happy to call Walpole a “hater,” but I think that that’s wrong. Walpole was a good old boy who believed, as good old boys do, that a defeated opponent ought to be destroyed. No mercy. Mercy is an obscenity for these people. Dispassionately, à la Machiavel, you destroy your opponents simply because they have put themselves in the way of being destroyed by you. There is nothing coarse about the destruction. In short, I feel that there is much to be learned, still, from Walpole’s amazing ministery.

Weekend Note:
4 August 2012

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

Thought for the weekend: not since the palmy heyday of Katharine Hepburn has there burned on the screen such a fiercely beautiful intelligence as that of Rashida Jones. “You don’t have to be right all the time — even if you are.” Celeste and Jesse Forever is a remake of The Awful Truth for our times. I love Irene Dunne, never more than in The Awful Truth. But can you imagine what it would have been like with Katharine Hepburn? For one thing, it just might have ended as Celeste does.

And hats off to Chris Messina, for playing a man capable of credibly catching Celeste when she throws herself into the final jeté.    


I didn’t know that it was possible to break an Apple iPod dock — a dock made and sold by Apple. No moving parts, right? But, apparently, I did. The experience was another log on the fire: Apple is a fishy business. (Watch out, Twitter.)


I finished the Saturday chores on the early side, at about 3:30. I’d already shopped for dinner as well, so there was nothing that really needed doing. While Kathleen adjusted her sewing basket, I sat in my chair and eventually pulled up Hiroshige’s 100 Views of Edo, a book that I’d bought for a song at the Museum. I opened it up to Plate 37, I believe, a print that shows the view across the Sumida River to the west, with a distinctive mountain (not Fuji) in the distance. I read the accompanying text, which explaine details that I wouldn’t have registered as such, and checked out the map near the front of the book, which showed the vantage of this view and those of the next two pictures in the set. (I’m writing off the top of my head, because we’ve just had dinner and it’s Saturday night. Details are not important.) Then something bizarre happened. A feeling of the deepest, most meditative calm descended upon me, as though I were an Edo-ite savoring in his Proustian way the routines of a city that the “Meiji Restoration” would destroy as surely as the bombs that fell on other cities, and not only in Japan, in World War II. I have never known a book of pictures to convey anything like this feeling of profound calm, certainly did not open it in the expectation of any kind of “experience.” Which is what made the peace that fell upon me seem as miraculous as it was novel.


On Sunday afternoon, after a late but lovely lunch (Cobb Salad, put together entirely with ingredients that were not only on hand but read to be tossed — bacon, chicken breast, hard-cooked egg), I progressed to the computer and (and a bottle of Sancerre) ordered a lot of books. Books and book-like things, such as Derek Jacobi’s recording’s of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I had spent a good deal of time before lunch trying to find Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, without success. I’d been reading Colm Tóibín’s essay on Bishop in Love in a Dark Time, and it made me want to read some of the poems. I don’t know why the book isn’t with all the other poetry books, but I suspect, in fact, that it never was. It sat for a long time with a companion volume of essays and other prose works. Then the essays went to storage. Did the poems go as well? I can’t think so. In any case, I ordered the Library of America edition of her work, which includes a selection of letters.

I haven’t written many letters lately, at least from the traditional point of view. The lawyer in me has grown more restrictive: if something isn’t fit for mention at this site, then I probably ought not to be writing about it at all. My own point of view is that what I’m writing here is indistinguishable from what I would write in a letter.


After the movie on Friday afternoon, and saying goodbye to Ms NOLA at the corner of Houston St and Second Avenue, I walked uptown to Ninth Street, turned at Veselka, and dropped into Dinosaur Hill, the utterly irreproachable toyshop. I bought lots of things for Will. I bought a fire engine (he already has the accordion bus built by the same manufacturer to the same scale), and a Bruder backhoe, completely in plastic, that will be great on the beach; and I bought a Taj Mahal mold for sandcastling. I bought an inflatable political globe. I bought a very nifty little subway car with a few bells and whistles (lights, train noises, an announcement, opening doors on one side, traction). I bought a Putamayo sampler that I’m pretty sure I don’t already own. When everything had been tucked into a shopping bag, I asked for a piece of tissue to put over the top, because I intended to hold everything but the fire engine in reserve. Then I walked over to Will’s house, where I was scheduled to babysit.

The nifty subway car will go into Will’s bin of toys here at the apartment. The Putamayo disc will go virtual, playlist-wise. Everything else will be shipped out to Fire Island, along with seersucker shirts, the odd kitchen implement, and a selection of books. (I’m going to have a go at re-reading Trollope’s Orley Farm.) Two weeks from today, I’ll be writing from Ocean Beach, or such is the plan.

Even as I’m trying to deal with the prospect of being away from home for four weeks, Kathleen is trying to entice me to accompany her to London in October. The convention that she’s to attend will be held at a flashy center in Aldersgate, and she may stay at the same quaint hostelry that she liked last time she was there by herself. For my part, I’m not much of a City fan. It’s old and curious (when it’s not shockingly futuristic), but it’s not London. Westminster is London. Kensington is London. If I want old and curious, I can go down to Wall Street, which I will probably never do again in this life voluntarily. Done it! Every time I look at St Paul’s, moreover, I feel this completely bogus nostalgia for the Gothic cathedral that burned down in the Great Fire.

I almost bought a Staten Island Ferry toy for Will, but it turns out that I was very wise not to, because, as his mother informed me later, it’s a battery-operated plaything, and therefore unsuitable for the bath, into which Will would nevertheless wish to plunge it.

Weekend Note:
Rise and Shine
28-29 July 2012

Saturday, July 28th, 2012

“It was a tough week.” That’s how I put it to myself. But I can’t put it that way here, without the quotation marks, because there was nothing objectively tough about it all. I was unaccountably tired at the beginning, and also worried about something that it took a while to clear up. By Wednesday afternoon, I was celebrating Fossil Darling’s birthday, and very much in the mood. Thursday was not unproductive but somewhat strange, because it dawned on me at about five o’clock that I was going to have to think hard about what I was doing if I was going to get myself into bed at ten. Which I did, although I did not fall asleep at once. Friday morning, I was up at six: success at last.

But it’s tough to be tired, for whatever reason. Fatigue takes on an existential dimension with age: it becomes awfully easy to imagine that you’re never going to shake it. Regular life doesn’t seem worth the effort. Little household tasks seem too tedious and trivial to consider, which is another way of saying that they become disproportionately momentous. (Why even think about putting the laundry away?) There’s an element of clinical depression that would be more than merely elemental if the fatigue were allowed to become chronic. For me, the source of fatigue is very simple: it comes from staying up too late and drinking too much wine. These vices go together; for decades, they were the only route to sleep. Now that I’ve been taking Lunesta for a year, I’m beginning to believe in a healthier routine, but at least thirty years of habit have to be ripped up, and a very attractive part of the habit is the pleasure of talking with Kathleen at and after dinner — dinner which, owing to her hours, rarely occurs before nine o’clock, and never before seven-thirty.   


At long last, I figured out how to cook chicken breasts. Why it took so long — well, it took so long because, as with so many little things in life, I tend to believe, like the nitwits in Molière’s Précieuses ridicules, that “Les gens de qualité savent tout sans avoir jamais rien appris.” Use your head, in other words — but, sometimes, using a recipe is better, and it this case it wasn’t even a recipe, just a Mark Bittman sketch about things to do with chicken breasts that appeared in the Times Magazine a few months ago.

I knew that I’d figured out how to cook chicken breasts this time because they were tender and moist and slightly spongy — and full of flavor. Yes, I used curry, but there was a delicious chicken taste underneath it.

Here’s what you do: Heat two tablespoons of butter and a half teaspoon of curry powder in a gratin dish, in a 400º oven, for about six minutes. Take the dish out of the oven, and roll the chicken cutlets in the melted butter. Pop back into the oven, cooking the chicken for six minutes on a side. Then turn the oven off and open the oven door a bit. You can leave the chicken in the oven for up to five minutes.

The trick is to find out what the times for your oven will be.


While tidying the flat on Saturday, I found myself in a mood to listen to speaking, not singing, so I rifled through my small collection of audiobooks and came upon a treat: Ben Kingsley reading Sherlock Holmes stories. It has been decades since I last read Conan Doyle. I do not believe that he wrote for adults, and his detective adventures are larded with the most preposterous nonsense. When the incognito “king of Bohemia” refers to his upcoming nuptials, and the reason for his anxiety about a photograph of himself in the company of Irene Adler, for example, I can only burst into hysterics.

“To Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meiningen, second daughter of the King of Scandinavia. You may know the strict principles of her family. She is herself the very soul of delicacy. A shadow of a doubt as to my conduct would bring the matter to an end.”

It’s not the “king of Scandinavia” bit that tickles me. It’s the idea that doubts about a prince’s private love-life would interfere with a dynastic marriage. (In the real world, they just might  — if he didn’t have one!) Such passages let all the air out of the tire for me. I wonder what Princess Alexandra (as she then was) made of this one.

I remember taking especial delight, when reading this stuff in my twenties, in the formal tics, my favorite being Holmes’s heralding the arrival of the client in Baker Street.

     “Precisely. And the man who wrote the note is a German. Do you note the peculiar construction of the sentence — ‘This account of you we have from all quarters received.’ A Frenchman or Russian could not have written that. It is the German who is so uncourteous to his verbs. It only remains, therefore, to discover what is wanted by this German who writes upon Bohemian paper and prefers wearing a mask to showing his face. And here he comes, if I am not mistaken, to resolve all our doubts.”
     As he spoke there was the sharp sound of horses’ hoofs and grating wheels against the curb, followed by a sharp pull at the bell.

Ben Kingsley is, needless to say, divine. As I dust the knickknacks and wipe the bibelots, I couldn’t feel more like Mrs Turner.


For breakfast on Sunday morning, I made a pot of cofee the old-fashioned way, with a stove-top percolator. I filled the pot with four cups of water, and then I put four tablespoons of reasonably good, appropriately ground coffee from Fairway in the basket. I set the pot over high heat. The moment a jet of water erupted into the glass dome, I turned down the heat, and kept turning it down, over the course of a minute, to rather low. Once the pot was spouting along nicely, I let it go for ten minutes. The result is very satisfying! It’s certainly nothing like the Kona that I brew in the Chemex, but that’s a weekend specialty for the two of us. Also, I’ve never figured out how to make small amounts of coffee with a Chemex, even with a little Chemex. Now I can start the day with a couple of cups of good-enough coffee.

Also a reminder of childhood. The percolator was the first item of kitchen appliance that I ever noticed, or perhaps the second, after the eggbeater. Did I tell you that Ray Soleil gave me his grandmother’s eggbeater? You can’t get them anymore. I’m talking about the hand-cranked type, of course. It’s really the only way to beat eggs for scrambling. (Because of its wooden handle, this eggbeater cannot be run through the dishwasher, so I soak the blades in warm water once I’ve poured the eggs into the skillet. A little soap, a little beating, a quick rinse — done.)

The soft percussion of a bubbling percolator says “breakfast” like nothing else in the world.


By Friday, I was strong enough to do a bit of running around, but not quite strong enough not to feel it. I began with a burger at the Shake Shack — I hadn’t been there in a while. Then I marched to the Museum, where I attended to a dereliction in our membership. The word for my membership renewal policy has been, for several years, “drift.” Originally, probably like a lot of people, we renewed at the end of the year. This is a terrible time for that sort of thing, given all the other expenses of the holiday season. So I took to renewing a day or two after our membership expired, which effectively postponed the following year’s expiration by a month. (Membership is YYMM, not YYMMDD.) This year, I had things just where I wanted them: I was set to renew on the first of June. But June went by without my making it over to the Museum, and so did most of July.

You may wonder why I didn’t simply return the renewal form supplied by the Musem, why I had to renew in person. That’s because of the other drift, which has been upwards through the ranks of membership. We have found the limit, I think; the gulf between our membership and the next rung up is a multiple of what we’re paying now — which is already enough for me to think it better to divide the weight between two credit cards, much easier to do in person. As I did on Friday.

Then, since I was already there, I took in the Schiaparelli/Prada show, which I must drag Kathleen to, since I’ve never seen so many clothes that looked designed just for her. Then I went up onto the roof, really just to take pictures. There is something odd about the Roof Garden; it has, rather, a seaside air, and not in the just the nice ways. So many fagged tourists looking exhausted on the benches! So much sun, or other intense weather, beating down! Instead of sand, the treetops, and, instead of the sea, the skyscrapers. Two kinds of wilderness: the forest that is Central Park, and the riot of development beyond it. Until 150 years ago or so, civilized people anywhere would have found the juxtapositions bizarre and somewhat barbaric.

On my way to the egress, I thought of my knees which are still a bit swollen from my climb-down a few weeks ago (thinking that I’d be late for a movie if I waited for the only elevator in service, I took the stairs almost all the way down to the ground, something that I will Never Do Again except in case of fire), and decided to spare myself the descent from the main entrance. I walked instead to the elevators in Greece and Rome, and went down to the group/Children’s Museum/handicapped entrance. This put me out at 81st Street, which was fine, since I was heading for Crawford Doyle. I’d forgotten, though, that this route would take me alongisde Frank Campbell — not just the front, which is for the living, but alongside, where two staffers were doing something with an empty gurney. Such sights stir one’s mind.  


There seems to be something cooking at Crawford Doyle. Whatever it is, it makes me read the books that I buy there right away. It happened with three books a few weeks ago; now it’s just happened with two. Two of the books that I bought on Friday were read by Saturday afternoon. And I loved them both.

The first was J R Ackerley’s We Think the World of You, which I would call a novella, even though NYRB has published it unaccompanied by other material. It appears to be Ackerley’s only work of fiction. Although it is very well put together, and you’re aware of that as you read it, the book feels as wild as the animal at its center — which is either a large sheepdog of some kind called Evie, or a condescending gay twit, depending on your point of view. The twit speaks English of a sort, and holds down a government job in a building “in the neighbourhood of Regent’s Park” (why not just say “Marylebone Road”?), but is as lacking in self-awareness as any beast — as, say, Humbert Humbert, or one of Patricia Highsmith’s more demented characters. That’s where the thrill comes from: Frank, the narrator, is so dangerously presumptuous about the ground that he walks on that he can’t imagine it giving away beneath him, which it very nearly does several times. It’s the danger looming all round him that makes Frank bearable — as a potential human sacrifice. I kept longing for him to be crushed. The book’s ending, according to P N Furbank, is “minatory,” and certainly far from happy, but I wanted blood, which was very shaming.

At the beginning of the book, Frank’s lover, or “lover,” Johnny — a feckless cockney charmer loaded with short-term shrewdness but utterly devoid of long-term intelligence, and also, by the way, saddled with a wife, a son, and a baby on the way — asks Frank to take care of his dog while he’s in prison. Johnny has botched an experiment in housebreaking and will be spending a year behind bars. Frank refuses to help out, which is very typical of Frank, who thinks that he’s very generous but who measures out his gifts in shillings. Only later, when he’s visiting Johnny’s mother, Millie (who used to be his char), does Frank meet, and fall in love with, Evie, a very large dog who is not being properly exercised, not, at least, by Frank’s Country Life lights. Without being aware of what he’s doing, Frank transforms Evie into a substitute for Johnny. That’s to say that he’s too worldly and established to imagine that he can engage in a custody fight for Johnny with HM Prisons, so he takes up instead against Millie and her husband and Johnny’s wife, and even the wife’s daughter by a previous engagement, in a contest for possession of Evie. And the issue, not very thinly disguised, is class. Just as Frank thought that Johnny’s family ought to have yielded Johnny up to him, as the far better companion for their son and husband, before the incarceration, so now he insists that he is the only one who can provide Evie with lots of space for galloping about and being unruly to strangers.

It’s almost impossible to believe that this book came out in 1960, when homosexual practices were still sanctioned in Britain.

I’ve probably made it sound gruesome and sordid, but We Think the World of You is a sparkler that it’s impossible to put down. Here is Frank, after his one and only visit to Johnny in prison, near the end of the sentence, expressing the bipolar contrition that swells up in him after he has indulged his “well-bred” contempt for Johnny’s family:

This interview, when the emotional pleasure of seeing Johnny had worn off, left me feeling unaccountably tired and flat, and as my thoughts, in the succeeding days, reverted to it and wandered dully among its shoals and shallows, I found myself afflicted by a despondency which had nothing to do with the perception that I had been put, to a large extent, in the wrong. Say what one might against these people, their foolish frames could not bear the weight of iniquity I had piled upon them, they were, in fact, perfectly ordinary people behavving in a perfectly ordinary way, and practically all the information they had given me about themselves and each other had been true, had been real, and not romance, or prevarication, or the senseless antics of some incomprehensible insect, which were the alternating lights in which, since it had not happened to suit me, I had preferred to regard it. They simply had not wished to worry Johnny, and, it was plain enough, he had had much to worry him already; he had cared about the fate of his dismal wife and family, as Millie had cared about Dickie, and, for all I knew, Tom about Evie; the tears Johnny had shed over his dog had been real tears and, there was no doubt of it, he had terribly missed his smokes.

(I roared with laughter.)

Their problems, in short, had been real problems, and the worlds they so frequently said they thought of each other apparently seemed less flimsy to them than they had appeared to me when I tried to sweep them all away. It was difficult to escape the conclusion, indeed, that, on the whole, I had been a tiresome and troublesome fellow who, for one reason or another, had acted in a manner so intemperate that he might truly be said to have lost his head; but if this sober reflection had upon me any effect at all, it produced no feeling that could remotely be called repentence,

(See what I mean?)

but only a kind of listlessness as though some prop that had supported me hitherto had been withdrawn. Yet Johnny had been perfectly nice; what better proof of his affection could I have than the thought that had come to him in the solitude of his cell of calling his new child by my name? And I could have his dog. And soon I should have him…. Indeed, I had everything, except the sense of richness, and when the phrase “I ‘ad to do me best to please everyone” recurred to my mind, I wondered why so admirable a sentiment made me feel so cross. Beneath such a general smear of mild good nature, I asked myself, could any true value survive? Where everything mattered, nothing mattered, and I recollected that it had passed through my mind while I spoke to him that if the eyes that looked into mine took me in at all, they seemed to take me for granted.

Now, that’s what I call “Foney Baloney.” I will leave it to you to encounter Evie for yourself; I encourage you to do so!  

About Harriet Lane’s debut novel, Alys, Always, I can say nothing for the time being, because the book is much too exciting to permit discussions that might betray its plot. I shall content myself, for the moment, with observing that, while I agree with whoever wrote passage blurbed from the Independent on Sunday, that the book is “in classic Ruth Rendell territory,” I must insist that it is a great deal more sophisticated in tone than the worthy baroness’s fictions, even the best of them. Alys, Always in in fact well-enough crafted to pass as something that Ian McEwan might have produced. The book is smashingly good, and, as a plus, it was for me a very interesting (and totally serendipitous) counterweight to We Think the World of You, because its narrator is an outsider who weighs and considers her every move and every word. The youngsters of our fair city will profit mightily from the study of this elegant handbook of ambitious restraint.

Weekend Note:
Modest Proposal
21 July 2012

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Lovely weather, for a change. And on a weekend, too.

On Wednesday afternoon, I decided to run some errands even though I knew that it was going to rain. Dressed entirely in cotton (but for my loafers), I declined to burden myself with an umbrella. My Tilley hat would have to do. Also, I carried a zipped tote bag from Bean’s. I got across 86th Street — only that far — and then the rain came. It was a pounding rain, but intermittent at first. I lingered under awnings and walked out during let-ups. I made my way down First Avenue to 79th Street, where I took care of two of the errands on one side of the avenue before crossing to the other. By that time, there were no more let-ups. The monsoon was upon us, sweeping curtains of rain up and down the road while twisting the trees every which-way. By the time I walked into Agata & Valentina, I was soaking wet.

Or so I thought until the walk home, through pouring rain. The rain was blowing down behind me, and presently I became unpleasantly aware of walking in very wet pants. I felt sure that my back pocket would melt, and that my wallet would spill onto the pavement. It’s one thing to be wet almost everywhere else; being wet in the seat is, well, wrong. Especially now that old enough to wonder how long it’ll be before I’m back in diapers.

When I got home, my clothes were as wet as they’d have been if I’d jumped in a lake. But I wasn’t, strangely enough. I was damp, but not soaking after all.  The same could not be said for my copy of Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter, which I’d brought along “just in case.” The top edge of the book got quite wet, zipped tote notwithstanding, and the tops of the pages were decorated with quite distracting draperies of moisture. The book was still wet when I finished reading it, on Thursday.


The news from Aurora, Colorado, raises a tidal wave of questions and conclusions, all mixed up and crazy. It tells of the kind of event that, in my idea of a properly-ordered society, would be simply inconceivable. I refuse to see the killer as an isolated rogue, as an instance of spontaneously generated evil. He seems to me, rather, fearfully to embody the outlook of the Dark Knight Rises character played by Tom Hardy. Indeed, no trip to the movie theatre is complete these days without at least a few feet of apocalyptic explosions. The imagination of disaster has clearly metastasized since Susan Sontag wrote her essay on the subject. What used to work like a preclusive charm againstf nuclear holocaust now resembles the dress rehearsal for a Cormac McCarthy festival.

I do have an idea, though.

When Kathleen was in eighth grade, she was something of a troublemaker, but the nuns (madames of the Sacred Heart, thank you very much) knew how to handle her.  They rigged an election and made Kathleen the class president. It was the same logic that transformed Joseph P Kennedy from a stock manipulator into the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Why not try it out on the National Rifle Associaion?

Hand over the regulation of guns to the NRA. No more Second Amendment problems! No more feckless legislation! Who better to make sure that the people who kill people don’t have access to the guns that “don’t.” Just put the NRA in charge, and fine the pants off it every time something like Aurora happens.

Just a thought.

Weekend Note:
Figuring in Euros
14-15 July 2012

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Having stayed up late, watching almost all the rest of Miranda but saving the last episode for later, I loitered on in bed the next morning, encouraged to do nothing more constructive by the knowledge that Kathleen, who stayed up even later than I did, wasn’t about to get up anytime soon. Although I’d proposed going to see To Rome With Love this morning, I saw at once that it would never happen, and that the better plan, if plan it would be, would be to make a simple breakfast and keep Kathleen in bed until one or so, when she would (will!) rouse herself for her Saturday-afternoon trip to midtown, to have her hair washed and dried. There was no hurry on the breakfast, either, so I crawled back into bed with Tessa Hadley’s The London Train and read the last twenty pages. A sweet way to begin the weekend!

The London Train is full of magic — magic being entirely a matter of encountering someone else at the right time in the right place. Or not: at the end of the novel, estranged spouses spend the night in one another’s empty houses, and this is precisely what their relationship needs in order to carry on. This almost ritual, but unconscious, separation, each exploring the other’s not-unfamiliar turf. (Cora, the wife, has retreated in the estrangement to her late parents’ house in Cardiff, which she is doing over in order to sell it when it becomes, instead, a haven. But on the very night that Robert comes to visit, she sleeps in the spare room of the Regent’s Park flat that she shared with him for over ten years. What she discovers is that he has been sleeping in the spare room, too.  


Variation on a theme: pork chops with pear, honey, mustard, and sage. My everyday pork chop dish, taken from Classic Home Cooking, calls for boneless chops, cut into two pieces if they’re very thick, to be slathered with mustard, brown sugar, and orange juice, with peeled orange slices between the mustard and the brown sugar on the top side. Kathleen is very fond of this dish, and I associate it with winter, not because it’s heavy but because it’s hearty. I wanted something less robust when I made it the other night. I bought a nice hard bosc pair and peeled it; then I grated it into a bowl. I added two spoonfuls of thick local honey, a little more than that of grainy mustard, and a dusting of dried sage. This stirred up into a cohesive paste, which I spread on each side of the chops and which I was delighted to find adhering to the chops when I removed them to the dinner plates with a spatula. Although wary of the novelty at first — that local honey is very strong and earthy — Kathleen decided that she liked it very much. I shall experiment with different honeys, and also with chopped fresh sage.

I served the pork chops with boiled arborio rice — yay! why did I never think to boil it before? — and one of the very first vegetables that I learned how to cook: summer squash steamed with dill.


Shortly before leaving the flat on Friday morning to join Ray Soleil for an early showing of Les Adieux à la Reine down at the Angelika, Kathleen, who had just left, called from the street to warn me that the regular elevators were out of service, mostly, and that everyone was crowding into the service elevator. Knowing how long it might take to get out of the building, I decided to descend by stairs. At the sixth floor, I paused to check on the elevators, and was happy to see that one was just about to stop where I was. But I might as well have taken the stairs all the way to the ground, because the damage was done. By Saturday afternoon, I was hobbling about like a foot-bound tai-tai, and my right leg would barely flex enough to step into shorts. I managed to do all my Saturday chores, but there was no thought of making an interesting dinner. I pulled out a small container (ample for the two of us) of Agata & Valentina’s okay bolognese lasagne. Later, I fell asleep in my chair, reading Timothy Mo’s An Insular Possession, a fat historical novel about Hong Kong that, when it finally fell to the floor about an hour and a half after I’d dropped off, according to Kathleen, woke me up and sent me to bed.

On Sunday morning, Kathleen and I went across the street to see To Rome With Love. Kathleen wanted me to wait to see it for the first time with her (such a romantic!), and I did, on the understanding that we’d see it on a weekend morning. Everyone at the 11:20 showing was my age or older, and we all liked it very much. It’s not as simply delightful as Midnight in Paris, but it is as full of magic as all of Woody Allen’s movies seem to be lately. The biggest trick of all is that the four plotlines that the movie weaves together run on different time-scales (one lasts hardly more than an afternoon, while another clearly takes weeks) without the slightest cognitive jar. Certain bits made me laugh to the point of tears, but the final scene, a nighttime, overhead shot of a (stationary) marching band playing “Volare” on the Spanish Steps, took me straight to the tears. Just thinking about it afterward, I could feel my face go a bit rubbery. Judy Davis has all the best lines. One of them appears in the trailer: when her character’s husband, played by the filmmaker, preens about his IQ of 156, she tells him that he’s “figuring in euros.” In an even better line, when he brags that his psychology can’t be made to fit the Freudian scheme, she agrees: “You have three ids.”

About Les Adieux à la Reine, my response was more complicated; I was certain that there was much in Benoît Jacquot’s film that I felt going over my head. Such as the dahlia that the central character, Sidonie (Léa Seydoux) a young woman who reads to Marie-Antoinette (Diane Kruger), is asked to embroider for the queen, even as the roof is caving in on the régime. How does Sidonie feel about the unpopular queen? I was never quite sure. I came to feel that I wasn’t expected to be sure. The film is a meditation of sorts on still-controversial aspects of French history. It might be thought of as a masque, if so many of its scenes weren’t shot in dull backstairs locations. The Galerie des glaces figures in one shot, as does the staircase in the Petite Trianon. The queen has a tête-à-tête with her favorite, the princesse de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen) against the background of some very opulent satin upholstery, and Ms Kruger herself is the finest Marie-Antoinette yet to appear in film (if you ask me). But this is not a movie about luxe. What it does capture (I imagine) is the claustral, anxiously gossipy world of the great château in its final days as the seat of government. Nobody really knows what’s going on — a state of affairs that would plague France for years to come.


On Sunday afternoon, I attacked the overflowing basket of magazines. I read only five periodicals with regularity: The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, Harper’s, and Vanity Fair. Several times a year — Sunday was one of them — I wade through several issues of BBC Music, a publication that drowns me in information and guilt when consumed in this manner. I ripped out five or six pages from four issues; the next step is to order the CDs written up thereupon. Several hours seemed to pass in this manner. Then I picked up Vanity Fair, and quickly concluded, what’s the use. Every page informed me that I have lived my life to no purpose; I shall never be one of the great and good who glitter so handsomely from its pages. I’m beginning to feel that keeping track of the great and the good is beyond me.

Reading James Wolcott on the celebrity magazines whose headlines I peruse, bewildered, on the checkout line at Gristede’s, I inched a bit closer to understanding what he calls “the Kardashian Imperium.” As I say, what’s the use?

Weekend Note:
Locked Out
7-8 July 2012

Saturday, July 7th, 2012

We’re having a heat wave — and Con Ed is having a lock-out. At least two managers, stepping in to do the rank-and-file work, have been hospitalized for burns. Our fretful neighbor down the hall gobbles on about the risk of being stuck in the elevator during a sudden blackout. “Because,” she goes on, as if to add something, “You don’t want to get stuck in the elevator during a blackout.”

The other day, she had a different kind of lock-out to worry about. Another neighbor’s grandson, not quite a year older than Will so therefore about three and a quarter, locked his mother out of his grandparents’ apartment when she went to the laundry room down the hall to put some clothes in the dryer.

I was coming back from tossing something down the garbage chute when I saw the mother at the door. I thought that she was letting herself in, and I didn’t think anything of asking after her father (our neighbor), who hasn’t been well. I wished that I knew her name; I’ve known her for most of her life. She was just about starting out in elementary school when we moved into this apartment. She and her older brother both married years ago, and they both have sons. The daughter now lives in Astoria, I believe, but she is a frequent visitor, and I always like to see her boy, who is very handsome. He has a Spanish grandmother, and a grandfather from Bombay, and his other grandparents are Japanese. I didn’t realize what he had just done — his mother was, alas, not letting herself in — until one of the building’s handymen swept by with an enormous ring of keys. That’s when our fretful neighbor appeared. ‘Oh, good, someone’s come up!” I myself remained fretful. The last time I locked myself out of the apartment, none of the keys on that ring turned our lock, and I can’t remember how I got back inside. It turned out to be just as fruitless for our neighbor’s daughter. I offered my own key, but it didn’t even  fit the lock on her door.

I wishdrew to our apartment but left the door ajar. I tried to work but could only think of the little boy, confused inside his grandparent’s apartment. Our neighbors’ apartment has a balcony, but it is in the outer corner of the building, and there is no adjacent balcony, so no one could do what one very agile flight attendant did, shortly after we moved into our place, when she locked herself out of the flat next door. Right: she climbed over the railing and stepped along the edge, with her back to the abyss. I wondered how difficult it would be to rappel or otherwise drop down to our neighbors’ balcony from the one above. These hopeless thoughts were obsessive and sickening, and I wasn’t getting any work done.

Then I heard the cheering and the laughter. It seems that the little boy settled down enough to do what his mother told him to do, and unlock the door. Universal applause! But I thought as I went back to work that in my day the child would have been scolded and possibly spanked, with all the love in the world. Parents put a lot more stock in fear in those days than they do now. I like to think that it is a change for the better, and I hope that it is not just pretty to think so.  


I spent the afternoon with Ms NOLA yesterday — summer hours! It was too hot to do anything interesting, but we decided that we would fix dinner together and that her beau (M le Beau) would join us, as of course would Kathleen. At first, we contemplated a composed salad, with tomatoes and some delicious piemontese rib eye that I would slice paper-thin. That probably would have made sesnse, given the heat, but we went in the other direction altogether, and prepared a basically Italian meal, with a primo of pasta and a secondo of roast chicken. We cheated on the chicken; we bought herb- and garlic-marinated chicken halves at Fairway. I gave them a try the other day and they weren’t at all bad. I could probably come up with a more interesting marinade myself, but you can’t marinate a chicken at the last minute; it takes hours (and hours). But Ms NOLA goosed it a bit, with cayenne and, at the end, green onions. This was served with sautéd corn tossed with chives.

The pasta sauce was the focus of our invention. The minute we got back from the store, I ran a Vidalia onion through the mandoline and drizzled the slices with olive oil. In the course of two hours, the onion caramlized beautifully and reduced from the bulk of a softball to three or four weightless tablespoons of intense allitude. (Correct me on that; I’m working from allium.) Meanwhile, we dumped a large can of crushed San Marziano tomatoes into a small Dutch oven and seasoned it with white wine and nutmeg; as it bubbled along nicely and slowly, we added more wine. When it was time to put the chicken in the oven, we also slid in a pint of cherry tomatoes, daubed with butter and marjoram, tossed in one of those lion’s-head bowls with a lid.

The sauce was a study in foods cooked for a long time playing well with others that were hardly cooked at all, and the result was a robust summer sauce that made the best of the weather instead of fighting it. While the water boiled for the spaghetti, we combined the slow-cooked elements in the Dutch oven, stirring in roast tomatoes (with their bubbly, buttery cooking liquid) and the caramelized onion into the crushed tomatoes. Then we added a grated zucchini and a lot of garlic. At the last minute, a quantity of chopped parsley was tipped in.  At the table, we passed a bowl of chopped basil, which Kathleen doesn’t care for, and a wedge of organic parmegiano reggiano, along with a grater.

Ms NOLA did almost all the work, seriously, especially the chopping and the grating. She decided when to add what (although she always asked for my opinion first, only to hear that I left it up to her). My one new idea (new to me, that is) — that the grated zucchini would boost the lightness of the sauce while practically melting invisibly into it — turned out to be a good one. The downside of my being spared all that hard, hot prep was that I sat down to table in wide-awake mode, and didn’t shut up the entire evening.

The next morning, I have washed all the dishes and gathered up the linens into the clothes hamper. The empty bottle of Médoc has been carried down to the recycling bin. Ms NOLA took all of the leftovers, at my urging, so there is nothing left of dinner, not even a slice of the scrumptious almond-and-apricot tart — nothing, that is, except the fantastic fragrance of a delicious sauce.


I may not have done anything interesting on Friday afternoon, but I did go to Crawford Doyle, which I would classify as disgraceful, given the pile of books, right here in the apartment, that remain to be read. I bought four books, two of of them criminal purchases — redeemed, however, by the curious and unlikely fact that I have read them both as of this writing. I have done nothing else this weekend, but I have read Midnight in Peking, by Paul French, and The Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles. I read the first on Saturday and the second on Sunday, boom boom.

The two justifiable purchases were After a Funeral, one of Diana Athill’s memoirs, and An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler. I’m reading all of Athill, anything I can get my hands on, so I don’t need to excuse that acquisition. An Everlasting Meal has been making a strongly favorable impression upon Ms NOLA, and, having read the wonderful chapter on rice, I can see why; among many other attractions, it is not lost on me that Elizabeth David is one of Adler’s touchstones. In short, it was never going to be the case that these books would get stuck in a pile and make me feel guilty.

But the other two books — pigs in pokes, almost. I’d seen The Rules of Civility, but resisted it, for reasons that I’ll explain when I write it up. What decided me for it was Ms NOLA’s remarking that her mother read it and liked it. A redoubtable recommendation! As for Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, I’m afraid that I must confess (although I’m brazenly unashamed) that the dust jacket sold me. I can’t at the moment actually read the credits, and applaud the designer; it’s too dark at the moment. But I’ll write it up, too. An immensely exciting read! Both books ought to be adapted for the screen right away!

These two purchases were indefensible because there was no good reason to be sure that I wouldn’t dislike the reading of these books, and give up on them after ten or fiftee pages. It’s bad enough to buy the books by Athill and Adler; I know theat I’ll read them, but where will I put them? In the event, helped, perhaps, by weather that made anything but reading, and reading of an escapist nature, simply horrid, I swallowed both books whole, like two delicious oysters. It felt shockingly wrong to stay planted in my chair, hour after hour, turning the pages — and yet you probably think that that’s how I spend every day! If only!

Interestingly, both stories are about ten years older than I am. Much of Midnight in Peking happens in 1937, and almost all of The Rules of Civility is set, in Manhattan, in 1938. I have always believed that ordinary modern women never looked better than they did in 1939; I only wish that I knew it for an experienced fact. The conviction certainly gave both books a patina of chic.

Weekend Note:
June into July 2012

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

The other day, the Times published a recipe for potato salad that caught my eye, David Tanis’s “A Summer Salad the French Might Recognize,” and I thought that, instead of going out for dinner that night, as planned, I would make it to have ready whenever Kathleen got home from work. I insisted upon a few changes, of course, and I conducted an experiment that turned out very nicely. There was also a second experiment, but that one flopped, and the results were discarded before they could ruin the salad.

The big change was to add tuna. I bought the smallest chunk that Agata & Valentina had to offer. I researched methods for poaching it online — much easier than going through my cookery books. In a small saucepan, I brought water and wine to the boil, and then I reduced it to a simmer. It took a while to regain the simmer after I’d slipped the tuna into the water, but in ten minutes it was done. I removed the tuna to a bowl, where I flaked it and drizzled it with olive oil.

Then, in the same water, still simmering, I cooked two eggs, for about nine minutes. Would this be a disaster? Would the eggs develop an odd color or, worse, a funny taste? I wouldn’t know until I put the salad together at the last minute. It turned out that they were just fine.

Then, still in the same simmering water, I cooked a handful of haricots, for just a few minutes. As I’d done with the eggs, I transferred the cooked beans to a bowl of ice water.

Meanwhile, I steamed a bag of assorted heirloom potatoes, most of them quite small. When the largest were tender, I quartered the lot and drizzled them with olive oil as well. This is how I always prepare potatoes for salad. So I missed the thyme and bay called for in the recipe. I’m not sure that they would have added much — muuch that was desirable, I mean. Next time I make this dish, I will buy six or eight small potatoes; I could make a real potato salad with what didn’t go into this one.

By now, all the elements of the salad, except for the dressing, were ready. Dinner was hours away. Heaven!

I had thought from the start that I would compose the dressing by poaching garlic in olive oil. I looked into this online as well, but I’m pretty sure that I came up with a bad recipe. It began with dropping the garlic cloves into boiling water for a few seconds in order to make them easier to peel — an extraordinarily unnecessary step in my book. The poaching time seemed unusually long, especially as the cloves turned an unappealing dirt color. Another bright idea of my own — tossing in a few oil-cured anchovy fillets — made things a little worse. This concoction did not pass the sniff test. I salvaged the anchovies, tossing them into the tuna, and threw the rest away. 

The dressing that I did use was made, more conventionally, by combining safflower oil, the juice of a lemon, mustard, parsley, a dozen-odd capers, and cloves of elephant garlic in a small processor and whizzing them into creaminess. The safflower oil was a most welcome relief after the pong of the boiling olive oil, which had stunk up the flat. I suppose I ought to mention salt and pepper. They were added in small amounts as I went along. To the wine and water, for example. Salt and pepper are very important ingredients, salt especially. But they’re also incredibly personal, and part of being a good cook is knowing how much of them will suit you and the people whom you’re feeding. Don’t pay attention to what anyone else says — except of course when baking. (Baking is chemistry; its recipes are formulas.)

When Kathleen called to say that she was heading home, I began to combine things. The remaining capers went into the tuna bowl, and so did the chives. I halved two dozen pitted niçoise olives and threw them in as well, despite the recipe’s instructions to serve them on the side. Thinking that I had far too many potatoes, I reached in for small handfuls, three in all — about a third of what I’d steamed: this is a salad with potatoes, not a potato salad. (Good to know!) I peeled and quartered the eggs; in future, I think that I shall do what I usually do, which is to crumble the yolks and dice the whites. (Maybe I’ll toss in a third egg, cooked and quartered, just for looks.) The beans went in at the last minute, right before the dressing. Because Kathleen doesn’t care for basil, I omitted it, and didn’t miss it myself. I sprinkled bits and pieces of mesclun greenery onto our plates and then spooned the salad atop it, garnishing with the egg quarters.

We were surprised at how light the salad was; we’d both expected it to be somewhat heavy. What with tuna, potatoes, olives, anchovies, capers, and garlic… But those last three ingredients were brighteners, not darkeners. (The whizzed capers, together with the lemon juice, would have given the salad a positively neon finish without the tuna and the potatoes to anchor them.) It was so much more delicious than we thought it would be that we laughed out loud.

I’ve been deliberately shambolic about presenting my amendments to Mr Tanis’s recipe, because I think it wise to oblige you, if you’re thinking of giving this dish a try, to write it all out ahead of time for yourself. (I’d be most grateful if you’d send me a copy.)


On Saturday night, we had dinner at Nice-Matin with a friend from out of town — from out of town now; he and his wife are contemplating a move to Gotham — and we were seated in a tight spot at a table along the wall opposite the windows giving out onto Amsterdam Avenue. (If there is anything “Amsterdam” about Amsterdam Avenue, I have yet to suspect it.) Kathleen and our guest were seated on banquettes, and I had the chair with my back to the room. My back, also, alas, to a table close behind us. At some point before our entrées were served (the place was hopping), I was tapped on the shoulder, and a man’s voice called out, “Hey, big guy, you’re rocking us to sleep here.” My surprise lasted only an instant, but the mortification deepened until I thought that I was going to be unable to breathe. I pulled my chair in and felt my face flush with heat. It was not a pleasant feeling; it contained a lot of anger. Vanity presented a number of alternative ways in which my unwelcome intrusion might have been stopped earlier; it was fairly obvious that I didn’t know that the back of my chair was bouncing against another table. Or perhaps it wasn’t. I’d been the “big guy” in a “tight spot,” something I go to great lengths to avoid but hadn’t, there and then, had the chance to do anything about. Now I had to do something, so I leaned over and whispered to Kathleen that I thought I might have to leave the restaurant, I was so upset. That seemed to do the trick; I felt a little better just for having said it. I felt a lot better when the clown and his girlfriend paid their bill and departed. I was second to none in acknowledging their right to the quiet enjoyment of their dinner. But I’m pretty sure that a sign to Kathleen or our guest, or a word to the waitress, would have managed a less abrasive fix.

At Fairway this afternoon, the presence of a six-pack of Tsing Tao in my groceries occasioned a request for ID. I told the checkout girl that I would rather not buy the beer than prove that I was old enough to buy it; that, in fact, I was insulted by the request. I recalled an earlier round of this nonsense at the Food Emporium, which the bedeviled manager dealt with by instructing the checkout clerks to type in his own birthday. At Fairway, the request was dropped immediately, and I was allowed to buy the beer without showing my driver’s license. All the way home, all I could think of was how deeply gratifying it would be to take a baseball bat to the head of whatever omedhaun dreamed up this totally Stalinist derogation of discretion: no matter how bloody, the battery would entail no loss of brainpower. I think that I was still angry with the good people of Nice-Matin, for pretty thoughtlessly seating me in an impossible situation. I won’t let it happen a second time.


I’m in the middle of Colm Tóibín’s second novel, The Heather Blazing, and I’m hooked. It was a hard novel to get into, for a reason wholly extrinsic to the book itself. In alternating chapters, we shift between present and past, between Dublin and the seacoast just north of Wexford — the same terrain, and much of the same autobiographical material, that appears in The Blackwater Lightship, Tóibín’s first “big” book. It’s not the second novel’s fault that I’d read the fourth before, but it did take a while for me to get beyond a sense of theme-and-variations, interesting enough but hardly gripping. Now, though, I’m as taken up by the story of Eamon Redmond as if I’d never read another word of Tóibín. (And the novel that I’m now reminded of is Brooklyn.) The novel addresses a part of me that is usually offline: having grown up Catholic. Having, for example, fasted before Communion, and worried over sins in the confessional. (I was once told by Monsignor Scott that he was thinking of personally seeing to it that I was thrown out of Iona. So much for anonymity.) I remember a certain willingness to get down on my knees and pray aloud, “Turn, then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us” — the words running together in a sweet ragù of piety. “After this our exile show unto us” — who spoke like that? Nobody. Veneremur cernui!

What I love about Colm Tóibín as a writer is that while he is frequently quite funny in his criticism, he is never funny in his fiction, even in humorous situations. He may fool with people’s private parts, but he never fools with the English language; it is always as beautiful in his hands as a Benediction.

I’ll get to what that has to do with my distaste for James Joyce some other time.

Weekend Note:
22-24 June 2012

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Kathleen flew out to Chicago yesterday, for a firm outing, so I decided to have a spa day. The spa was in the bedroom and the rejuvenating device was the DVD player. I watched the last episode of Lewis, Season Six, and then The International, Tom Tykwer’s action thriller about banking. The spa treatment didn’t begin, though, until I went down to collect the mail, and picked up a box from Amazuke: videos featuring British comedienne Miranda Hart.

I hadn’t heard of Miranda until last week, when the head nurse at the Infusion Therapy Unit told me about her. Back at home, checking things out online, I discovered that Patricia Hodge is in the Miranda show, and that clinched it. I’ve adored Patricia Hodge ever since I saw Betrayal, with Jeremy Irons, even though the movie is now much too sad for me to bear watching. I ordered a couple of things, and some of them arrived yesterday. I had not planned to waste the entire day on videos, but mining a new vein of British humour could hardly be dismissed as “waste.” I ended up laughing my head off.

Miranda is an extremely traditional sitcom; I want to call it venerable. It’s got all the staples — irritating mother, pathetic dreams of glory, even more pathetic humiliations, drag (improbably but quite amusingly), and breathtaking rudeness. I’m probably leaving a few things out; my point is that Miranda is funny not because it’s completely new and different but because, like a great performance of a Haydn string quartet, it makes everything new. It is, above all, physical comedy, to a degree rarely seen in connection with a comedy character’s boarding-school background and decayed RP. Miranda Hart is a big girl, I suppose you’d say; not that tall really, but in no way petite, and biggest in the shoulders and bust. Being “feminine” does not come naturally to her onscreen avatar. Although she would never run for fun, she rather likes the idea of galloping. If she brings Jennifer Saunders and AbFab to mind, that’s because she is every bit as bold; but it would have to be pointed out that she is an Eddie Monsoon on the receiving end of life, not the dishing.

Imagine a woman built like Julia Child (and with Child’s verve for sharing secrets in front of the camera — “You’re alone in the kitchen! No one will ever know!”) inspirited by Carol Burnett. Like Carol Burnett, Miranda Hart establishes a warm and vital connection with her audience, whom she frankly addresses throughout the show. (In one episode, she tells a silly joke to her friends, and gets no response; then she tells is to someone else, ditto; and finally she turns to the camera and gives it a third try. “Nothing here, either! Most rude,” she huffs, turning back to the action.) Never has “complicity” been so deliciously exploited: watching the show, you become part of it, all the more when Miranda gets cosy with you and then says, “The pleasure’s all yours, ha ha.”

The basic setup is that Miranda is a young woman of county — well, Surrey — background whose mother (Patricia Hodge) is desperate to make something admirable out of her. Failing matrimony, Mummy would at least like her daughter to have an enviable job; instead of which, Miranda has invested an inheritance in a novelty shop, where you can buy chocolate willies and so forth. Miranda is too much a Hooray Henry herself to run a business; for that she has the blonde and very small Steve (Sarah Hadland). What Miranda wants to do with her time is scheme to attract her friend Gary (Tom Ellis), an unbelievably single piece of masculine attractiveness who runs the café next door. Mr Ellis is almost as pretty as Adrian Grenier, but he is so convincing as a decent bloke that you know that his looks mean nothing to him. After a couple of episodes, actually, I began to worry that the actor resents being exploited, in rather the same way that Marilyn Monroe did. The edge of discomfort in Miranda is not wide, but it scimitar-lengthy. 

I wanted to make a spa day of it and get to bed really early, but the cliffhanger at the end of Miranda Season One made that impossible: I had to know if Gary would stay in Hong Kong (and leave the show). As I watched the first two episodes of Season Two, my impression that the show gets funnier as it goes along was confirmed. “Such fun!” alone… I was in bed, lights out, at 10:30.


In the course of preparing this month’s Beachcombing entry — yes, there will be one; it will turn up at the end of the month; I’m experimenting with planning the page as a whole — I struggled to digest a very long entry at Jim Emerson’s Scanners. I put it that way because the entry consists of snips from a discussion, at the Times site, between A O Scott, who reviews film for the newspaper, and David Carr, a media guru, together with Emerson’s commentary, which is rabidly anti-Carr. I’m completely sympathetic (with Emerson), but it’s tricky to negotiate the squabble, especially as Emerson seems determined to fault Carr for faults in rhetorical logic. The cannon is a little to big for the target, but, as I say, I understand Emerson’s frustration. When are people going to understand the point of criticism?

In the discussion, at least as I breezed through it (multiple times, if that’s not a contradiction), Carr sees Scott as a godlike figure who is equipped with “a big box of lightning bolts,” meaning that Scott can shoot down and destroy any movie that he doesn’t like. This is a ridiculous position, as Scott is first to point out, but I am not going to get into the merits of the argument on either side. I encourage you to read the entry at some quiet time when you’re sure that you can let everything else drop for fifteen or twenty minutes. (Three-cornered arguments, no matter how lucid, are hard to follow.) As a regular follower of Scanners, I expect to come across most of Emerson’s points in future entries, and I shall try to feature them more coherently here. For the moment (it’s the weekend!), I want only to make a point that Emerson never gets quite round to clarifying, although I’d love to hear his argument with it: the authority of the film critic rests not in his or her superior understanding of “cinema” or of anything else, but only in the ability to convey a personal impression with clarity and interest.

In this the film critic is just another kind of good writer, not a specialist in movies. There is no such thing as an “objective” evaluation of a movie, even if there are some common mistakes that good films consistently avoid and that “bad” films don’t. (Emerson is fairly clear about this.) What makes Jim Emerson a great film critic right now is his urgency about the personality of movie reviews. The critic ought above all to make his or her personality known to the reader, because it’s from that that the reader will learn whether to expect satisfaction from the movie under review. As an example, it suffices for me to thank Manohla Dargis for her eloquent dislike of movies that I’ve enjoyed very much; when I make a beeline to see a film for which she has declared her contempt in the Times, I don’t feel that I’m right and that she’s wrong; her feeling differently about the picture does not enhance my pleasure. But it may confirm my sense, in advance, that this is a movie that I’m going to like, precisely because she doesn’t like it in the way that she doesn’t like it. Sometimes — I ought to specify (but it’s the weekend) — Dargis dislikes a picture in a way that I’m pretty sure that I’ll share, and I don’t go. That’s the easy part. It’s when she likes a movie that I’ve expected to like: then I’m flummoxed. But that’s my problem, and not the fault of Manohla Dargis!

I’ve been thinking about criticism a lot, in the wake of Nicola Beauman’s biography of Elizabeth Taylor, because negative reviews really got to Taylor, to a degree for which good ones couldn’t compensate, and in the end I’m not sure what purpose they served beyond the reviewer’s very momentary thrill at playing with the thunderbolts (literary critics, unlike their brethren in the dark, really do shoot them). Taylor’s bad reviews, at least as summarized by Beauman, are an anthology of stupidity. Now that Taylor and her critics have been dead for well over a quarter century, the fact that some of them couldn’t think of anything nice to say about her work leads to precisely nothing more than that: it is just so much stairway leading to blind walls. Much to be preferred is the red carpet that the critic cordons off with complete (and as-ostentatious-as-you-like) silence. The only thing to say about junk, if that’s what you think a novel or a movie is no better than, is nothing. Explicit criticism ought to be positive and constructive, except in those rare cases (Manohla Daris and Anthony Lane) where the writing not only bears down on the work but bears out the writer’s character. Which is Jim Emerson’s point: the best critics are great because they write so ably about themselves.


Miranda note: I’ve now watched all of both seasons. Let’s not forget Michel Serrault among the influences! There’s an awful lot of Cage aux folles in the psychiatrist episode! In which the best thing, though, is the audience reaction to Miranda’s little fantasy of Gary’s popping in and proposing. Not since the Beatles have I heard such screaming!


In her biography of the writer, Nicola Beauman opines, as I think I’ve mentioned, that Elizabeth Taylor was better at short stories than at novels. She strikes a note of impatience with The Sleeping Beauty, for example, feeling that it would have made five or six really great stories instead of just one novel. I don’t intend to agree with this judgment unless the stories, which I’ve just begun reading, really make the novels look bad as they are. Not inferior to the stories — stories and novels are not comparable — but bad as novels, something I don’t expect to conclude.

At the beginning of the Virago collection of the stories — prefaced by Joanna Kingham, Taylor’s daughter, but invisibly edited (there is no sourcing: we’re not told which collections the stories come from, nor the dates of publication in The New Yorker or elsewhere); quite shocking! — stands “Hester Lilly,” Taylor’s novella-length story. To my mind, it is definitely and easily a very long short story, and not a novella. (We’ll see why I think that.) “Hester Lilly” is about marriage. The title character is the orphaned poor relation of a headmaster whose wife is what we would call a narcissist. Robert, the headmaster, invites Hester to take a post as his secretary, over the covert (but transparent) objections of his jealous wife, Muriel.

Until now she had contested his decision to bring Hester into their home, incredulous that she could not have her own way. She had laid about his with every weapon she could find — cool scorn, sweet reasonableness, little girl tears.

Hester is indeed in love with Robert, but it is an affection based on their correspondence prior to her arrival, and it dissipates fairly rapidly in the strain of everyday life. Perhaps it would be better to say that it is transformed into a sense of security; initially afraid of the wildnerness surrounding the school (Hester has not spent time in the country before), she is encouraged to venture into the night, thus beginning a string of adventures that culminates in her marriage to a shy biology teacher who is drawn to her not only by her youth but by a sort of fraternal pity. Along the way, she will encounter a witch-like virago (!) who tempts her to return to the unthreatening but pointless existence from which Robert has rescued her. As to Hester herself, “Hester Lilly” is something of a fairy tale, complete with happy ending.

What gives “Hester Lilly” its thoroughly grown-up strength is the other marriage, the one that Hester seems intended, at first, to destroy. This is shown to be a marriage that has already died, and the showing is what interests Taylor most. Fearing Hester’s threat, Muriel misbehaves in ways that make her husband’s disgust and detachment obvious to her. If we were to look for a fairy-tale angle here, we might say that Hester is a mirror in which Muriel finally sees her own ugliness.

“I cannot make him come to me,” she thought in a panic. “I cannot get my own way.” She became wide awake with a longing for him to make love to her; to prove his need for her; so that she could claim his attention; and so dominate hiim; but at last wished only to conend with her own desires, unusual and humiliating as they were to her.

Such insight was unavailable to Muriel before Hester came to stay.

I want to call attention to the feature that immediately distinguishes “Hester Lilly” from Taylor’s novels. It begins with a situation and not with a scene. In her novels, Taylor introduces herself as a metteur en scène, and takes her time about providing the backgrounds of her characters. In “Hester Lilly,” Taylor takes her time about setting the story at a boys’ preparatory school. There is really no scene at all, just the three characters, Muriel, Hester, and Robert. Hester’s letters are the only prop. The first strong description is of Hester’s outfit.

Hester, in clothes which astonished by their improvisation — the wedding of out-grown school uniform with the adult, gloomy wardrobe of her dead mother — looke jaunty, defiant and absurd. Every garment was grown out of or not grown into.

(“Wedding” is especially artful, as we’ll see when the story ends in preparations for Hester’s wedding.) At no point does Taylor describe the house, formerly the seat of an ancient family (tagged, appropiately, as “Despenser”); the architectural aspect of the atmosphere — so prominent, even to the point of literal deadliness, in Palladian — doesn’t interest her here, despite the length of the story. I’m going to bear that contrast in mind as I make my way through this great delicious book.


Mikael HÃ¥fström’s Shanghai arrived the other day, and I watched it at the first opportunity. What had kept a 2010 Weinstein Company production starring John Cusack, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, and Chow Yun-Fat, set in Shanghai (unlike the more recent movie of the same name) in 1941, out of American theatres? Why wasn’t the video for sale, even? The movie itself offered no clues. It may not be the best movie ever, but it’s very competent when it isn’t actually exciting (which is often), and if the noir element feels a bit shopworn, the actors’ verve is ample compensation. The supporting cast is strong, too: Franka Potente, David Morse, Hugh Bonneville, Nicholas Rowe and Wolf Kahler all stand out, as do a number of Asian actors whom I might have recognized if I followed Mr Chow’s films as religiously as one might.

The mystery at the heart of the story is a McGuffin of which Hitchcock would have been proud: it’s nothing less than the massing of the Japanese fleet from which the attack on Pearl Harbor will be launched. The Americans in the story are of course unaware of this, and it turns out that the hero’s friend who is killed at the beginning of the story wasn’t murdered for that reason, even though he may have been on to the secret. Between the action on the screen and the catastrophe that everyone in the audience sees looming ahead lies a thicket of romance, betrayal, and political resistance that has nothing to do with American inter

Weekend Note:
16-17 June 2012

Saturday, June 16th, 2012


The timer has been set for twenty minutes. That’s how long I have to write. When the twenty minutes are up, I will go into the bedroom and play the first episode of Season 6 of Lewis, which Kathleen and I are dying to see. Me especially; Kathleen is simply dying. She was up until four, revising a document, on Thursday morning, and then she stayed up till all hours last night reading Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

There has been so much on my mind today that I won’t begin to get it down; this is the tragedy of Saturdays, when many things occur to me while I tidy the apartment. (Tidying your home at a regular time is perhaps the most effective psychotherapy I’ve experienced.) For example: it occurred to me that the fact that I couldn’t put down a single one of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, going straight from the one to the next until there simply weren’t any more, is not really very valuable as a statement of literary criticism. What it means is that the Time Was Right. Well, glory be for that, but I’ll have to make the case for her fiction on other grounds.

Making dinner, I watched Sid Caesar skits. Are they funny to me because I remember when they were new? They’re actually much funnier now than they were when I first saw them again, about ten years ago. I certainly didn’t understand them when I saw them as a kid, which wasn’t when they were new; I was too little. But to say (in lieu of “Sure, I’ll do that if you like”) “I would be most hermetically sealed to do so” or “I would be hydraulically lifted to do so” is funnier now than it ever was. Not to mention that Caesar and the writers understood the relationship between jazz and drugs all the better for, being writers, not being allowed to do drugs.

The Remicade is like a can of Popeye’s spinach. It doesn’t act quite so quickly, but all day, and especially into the evening, I’ve felt this wonderful restoration of self: I’m me again! As though I’d been a deflated balloon (not a bad image). There’s nothing in the least bit extraordinary about the way I feel, nothing keen or cool. I just feel good to be alive and “normal.” For the first time in about ten days. Which might raise existential questions, but I’m in my ninth year of Remicade infusions: this is an old story.

Seven minutes. I didn’t mean to talk about Remicade at all. Reading Diana Athill, thinking about Elizabeth Taylor. (Two trains that seem not to have crossed, although they must have done.) Shopping at PriceWise (the discount non-pharmaceutical “drugstore”) for Basis soap, Gristedes for fundamentals (dark chocolate M&Ms for Kathleen, bananas for me, and a small bottle of Clorox for the sink), and Fairway for dinner, more precisely the halo of dinner: I reheated last week’s bolognese. D’you know what? It tasted better when it was fresh. These meat sauces are often said to be better as leftovers, but in the case of my ragù, I don’t think so. Every Italian would agree.

Three minutes. One of my dearest friends thought that Lewis would be a flop. She’d never liked Kevin Whately’s character, and couldn’t understand anyone’s putting up with a detective who wasn’t an Oxford man. I don’t believe that she’d seen the show; she wasn’t aware of the magic of Laurence Fox’s character’s Cambridge theology background. I must ask her, when she gets back from her summer trip to perfidious Albion, if she’s seen the show yet. The sixth season has just come out on DVD (in Britain), and it won’t be long before there are as many Lewises as there are Morses. Speaking of Morse, I also have in my quiver a show called Endeavor. And you were wondering what Morse’s first name was.

Time. Aggravation Boulevard! Hadn’t seen it since The Artist! I was right! But no: Time.


There is only one difficulty about writing on weekends: I’d much rather be in a room, reading, with Kathleen, engaged in our sport of mutual interruption (the aim of which is to be informative without being irritating — pretty tricky for two attentive readers). I’ve been enjoying Stet no one, and wondering why it took me so long to climb aboard the Diana Athill bus for a very jolly ride. Other than that, all of a sudden, I don’t know what I’m reading.

This is partly because I put a lot of books away yesterday, shelving my TBR pile instead of stacking it. I’m reading two related books about empire and its consequences, Kwasi Kwarteng’s Ghosts of Empire and John Barr’s A Line in the Sand. While I wouldn’t say that I’m stalled in the middle of either, that’s only because I have forced myself to read chapters here and there. I am not very interested, at the moment, in distant places. And I do mean at the moment. It won’t last.

My disorientation about reading matter is also attributable to the aftermath of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which I finished yesterday morning after breakfast in a blaze of focus. It’s a very successful page-turner — ever more exciting as it approaches its brilliantly unstable conclusion (all I could think of was that Wallenda boy falling off his rope but surviving intact — inconceivable in real life). The first half of Gone Girl is too long; the author, who certainly knows her Jennifer Egan (as becomes instantly apparent in the opening page of the book’s second part), ought to work a little harder at compression and elision. In the long term, it’s a better idea to write for readers than otherwise, and to assume that readers bring a great deal of useful autofill to the reading process. It’s the people who don’t read who want confirmation of their surmises, and, in the long run, they have nothing to do with literary success. (Although of course they’re the ones who sell best-sellers, by recommending the kind of thing that they like to their friends.) Gone Girl could stand a bit of boiling down.

I recommend the book highly, though, and not only as a marvel of suspense, which it certainly is. I found in the novel’s diptych of narratives a very timely portrait, not so much of a bad marriage, as of a vainglorious romanticism. There is a self-consciousness about the relationship between Nick and Amy that is too artisanal to be sustained. The healthy one of the two of them gives up, and flails in the failure of love (this is established right away), while the other one contemplates Frankenmarriage. Hipsters everywhere ought to know this story, for their own safety and protection! I ope that I haven’t said to much (except that Sandra Bullock would win an Oscar).


Maureen Dowd asks if “with formerly hallowed institutions and icons sinking into a moral dystopia all around us, has our sense of right and wrong grown more malleable?” The question is occasioned by Mike McQueary’s testimony in the Jerry Sandusky trial. How could Mr McQueary not have known, Ms Dowd asks, the right thing to do when he saw his colleague abusing a boy in the showers?

He said he felt too “shocked, flustered, frantic” to do anything, adding defensively: “It’s been well publicized that I didn’t stop it. I physically did not remove the young boy from the shower or punch Jerry out.”

He told Paterno the next morning and went along with the mild reining in of Sandusky, who continued his deviant ways.

Put on administrative leave, McQueary has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the school. (He was promoted to receivers coach and recruiting coordinator three years after the incident.) “Frankly,” he said, “I don’t think I did anything wrong to lose that job.”

Dowd thinks that things are getting worse, but I take Mr McQueary’s indignation about losing his job as a sign that things are getting better, not worse. I don’t understand why Maureen Dowd, of all people (given her concern about priestly pedophilia), hasn’t learned that it is only recently that individual men and women — victims, for the most part — have refused to go along with the patriarchal toleration of coercive sexual deviance. It is not permissible for two men to love one another, but it’s all right for a powerful man to gratify his lust in any way that he can. We only now live in a world that urges victims not to accept the humiliation that accompanies involuntary sexual activity of any kind. I hope that we’ll arrive sooner rather than later at a stage in which mutual love validates every kind of sexuality.

Those hallowed institutions and icons were always pretty hollow. We’ve needed new ones for a long time, but we’re not going to get them by trying to reform the old ones.

Weekend Note:
Santa and His Elf
10 June 2012

Sunday, June 10th, 2012


There’s not much to report, because I’m feeling the ebbing of Remicade more than I usually do, possibly because humid weather intensifies the impact of the recurring, low-grade arthritis. I recognize the principal symptom: everything is an effort. It’s like a hangover without the headache or the queasiness. The less said, the better.

Yesterday was rather worse. It was all I could do tidy the apartment as usual. I did make a nice potato salad, a sort of fusion affair, adding chopped boiled eggs and caraway seeds to an otherwise French vinaigrette. I wasn’t sure that the cornichons and the eggs would hit it off, but they did. Kathleen had seconds.

The night before, Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil came for dinner. Ray was already here, actually; we had gone to the movies, had lunch, and then run some errands. Fossil had a very hard day; a neighbor’s dog, whom he had taken on long weekend walks in Central Park and grown very attached to, was found to be suffering far worse cancer than anticipated, and put down. We made an early evening of it, which ended in gales of laughter.

I was telling Kathleen and Fossil about something that happened a week or so ago, about which Ray had said something very funny at lunch. On the earlier occasion, he and I were waiting for a table at Demarchelier, sitting at the bar. In walked Kathleen Turner, the actress. I refrained from turning to see for myself, because it was enough to hear her distinctive low voice. This reminded me — I tell Ray — of another actress’s very low voice, but I couldn’t think of her name; she was in Kind Hearts and Coronets. I took my Kindle Fire and my Mi-Fi card out of my shoulder bag and had a lookat IMDb. It was Joan Greenwood. “Joan Greenwood,” I said, at normal volume, instantly wishing that I’d whispered.

On Friday, at lunch (at the Hi-Life), I was rattling on about having annoyed Ms Turner. (If there’s one thing I know about divas, it’s that they prefer other divas to go unmentioned in their presence. All comparisons are odious.) Ray could see the self-importance lurking behind my moaning, and he decided to nip it. “Relax,” he said. “She probably went home and called up a friend and said, ‘I’ve just seen Santa and his elf’.” That shut me up. But when I repeated it later, after dinner, all four of us fell into fits, except for Ray, of course, who is too modest to laugh at his own zingers. 

Weekend Note:
2 June 2012

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012


It would be wrong to claim that Will kept me on my feet for three hours yesterday. First of all, a big chunk of that time was spent in the back seat of a car, inching up Third Avenue. But even the standing and shuffling around in the blue room can’t be pinned on Will. It was really an episode of closet reorganization. It just so happened to involve nothing but his toys.

At one point, all of the toys that Will has here in our flat were sprawled across the sitting area in the blue room (as distinct from the ever-more-verboten “working area” — my writing table, my computer desk, and my Aeron chair), and I couldn’t help luxuriating in a pleasingly vague dream of Alan Hollinghurst’s despairing description of the scene. I didn’t actually write it out in my head — that would have been work — but every now a glint or angle of sharp prose would flash across my mind, leaving traces of pleasure. While Will played with this and that — at one point, he dumped all of his Plan Toys train set onto the carpet, but only in order to pack it all back into the box, everything except the little tree, which I suppose lacks the true railroading spirit of metal and motion — I kept my eye on various collections and undertook, for the first time since last summer, to gather like with like. All the crayons here. The wooden blocks there. For a long time, two of Will’s five little Volkswagens went missing. When they turned up, I tossed them into a bin, or wastebasket, that I bought at Sustainable NYC a year or so ago. It’s a clever assemblage of recycled plastic and old newspapers, and it looks great with a big beach ball in its open mouth, something like an ice-cream cone.  Aside from the bin, I had two more or less presentable boxes to work with, so that the toys wouldn’t have to be tucked under furniture or in my closet. Eventually, everything fit, right about time for Kipper.

A good many of the toys are a lot older than Will. One recent tidying-up of the deeper recesses of the linen closet unearthed a stack of coloring books that went back to the late Eighties, when we kept such things on hands for our country neighbors, one of whom, last we heard, has graduated from college and is dating an Annapolis grad.


A dinner that could have been better; or, what a difference thirty seconds makes. The slight slab of piemontese rib-eye looked really easy to overcook, and overcooked it was; although not by much; but “overcooked” is a bad steak flavor, just as “burned” is usually bad for butter, no matter how partial the burning is. Had it been up to me, I’d have asked for a steak about half-again as thick, but that would have been too much meat for the two of us; better to learn how to cook what Agata & Valentina serves up. The sweet potatoes held our hands through the difficulties, which were not great on the steak front but emphasized overall by a new vegetable dish: celery sautéed with mushrooms.

It’s a good dish! The celery tastes like fresh, raw celery, only softer and subtler. It does not taste like the coppery death-vegetable that we knew as children from various canned products, spaghetti sauces and chop suey mostly. The recipe was Elizabeth David’s, and I’ll try it again (and again), because there are really so few green vegetables out there that a new class is desperately wanted, and celery offers real possibilities. I can’t say that the celery and the mushrooms melded, but they didn’t fight, and the garlic that was called for completely disappeared.


After finishing The Folding Star the other day, I wanted to listen to accordingly murky, mysterious, preferably Belgian music. I spent rather a long time looking for a recording of Schoenberg’s Pelléas et Melisande, but I couldn’t find it, so I settled for Hugo Wolf’s Spanish Song Book, as sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. A long time ago, I was listening to this music in a speculative frame of mind, and the fourth song, an urgent lullabye about windy treetops, stuck in my brain forever. The other songs just sounded self-important, and I was not eager to forgive the composer for his dismissive remarks about Brahms. Perhaps for all these reasons, the songs were the perfect thing to listen to the other day,  in the wake of Hollinghurst’s novel: I’d known them forever, but only in the shallowest way; I didn’t really know them at all. Clearly, it was time to assemble a playlist around them.

Every now and then I go downstairs to the music department of the Barnes & Noble just up the high street; the selection may be patchy-to-bald, but it’s always a pleasure to paw through what’s on offer, and I always buy something. The other day, it was Carmina Burana. For as long as there have been CDs, I’ve owned only one recording (James Levine’s), and one has been enough. Now that I’m in the playlist phase of music appreciation, however, plurality is indicated, so, in addition to ordering the Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos recording that I grew up with (sort of; I had one before that, but I remember none of the particulars), I bought Sir Simon Rattle’s version. I had the most unedifying thoughts whilst listening to this during the living-room tidying. It wasn’t just the bit of “Mi chiamano Mimì” that seemed derivative; the whole damned oratorio (or whatever is) seemed stolen from major motion pictures. I didn’t mind, really, but I did feel a bit soiled, knowing it as well as I did, whistling along as though I hadn’t listened to anything else for years; and seeing, or hearing, that it was all one very well-constructed kick line.

Earlier, I read “The Black Box,” Jennifer Egan’s “Twitter” story in The New Yorker. All I’ll say about it now is that, as with the PowerPoint diary in A Visit From the Goon Squad, the very excellence of the performance shows up the limitations of the form; and, as in Helen DeWitt’s Lighting Rods, we are seduced by a way of talking for a reason: so that we’ll never be seduced by it a second time. Anyone who attempts to imitate Egan’s experiment with short sentences (tweeting turns out to be entirely beside her point) will demonstrate nothing but deafness. “Black Box” is a baroque variation on themes set forth in every airline’s safety show. Incidentally, I was surprised to see that Egan’s “dissociation” techniques (for dealing with unwanted carnal intrusions) so closely matched Edward St Aubyn’s, in Never Mind, the first of the Melrose novels. You fly out of your body up to a perch from which you look down on what is happening to you. It’s too sorrowful to think much about, and it leaves me convinced that I don’t understand a thing about sex.


In the space of several seconds, late this afternoon, I put down Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth novel, The Sleeping Beauty, and picked up her tenth, The Wedding Group. When I have done with The Wedding Group, I’ll have read all of Taylor’s novels. I thought that The Sleeping Beauty was going to break the spell; there was something about the opening chapters that I didn’t catch, or that didn’t catch me. But presently Mrs Tumulty appeared, and I was roaring. The next thing I knew, bigamy (of all things) was being contemplated.

Although there is a love story at the center of The Sleeping Beauty, a good deal of the book is taken up with other people’s doings. Very amusing is the surreptitious betting on horses that Isabella and her son Laurence indulge (each disapproving of the other’s). One of the amusements of being a novelist writing about bettors is getting to dream of names of horses. You don’t much care if Dumb Blonde or Rokeby Venus wins a race or even runs. Taylor slips in the names without warning, so that you have to be ready when Stream of Consciousness, suddenly introduced, does not mean what it usually means. At the other end of Taylor’s vast range of characters, we have a mean-spirited mother who can’t bear the company of her mentally challenged daughter. Terrible things happen in Taylor’s novels. Consider Mrs Arbuthnot, dismissed from the Claremont Hotel when she becomes incontinent, her arthritis making nocturnal visits to the loo down the hall too painful. I won’t say that Taylor makes this funny, but her retailing of Mrs Arbuthnot’s addled dreams (in which the loo can never be located) is not without comic point.

Plus: bigamy! When has that been permitted to accompany a happy ending?  

I’ve been told that all of Taylor’s short stories, originally collected in five volumes, will be published together in the not-too-distant future. I look forward to reading all the novels again, more slowly, taking notes, and framing observations. Certainly the first of these will be that each of Taylor’s novels is a different world, artistically as well as narratively; it sometimes strikes me that each of them was the author’s first.

I’m aware that Taylor’s fiction appeals to me because I have finally arrived at the point of accepting life as it is, something I resisted with a great deal of draining energy until just about the time that I began writing online, which is either twelve or sixteen years ago, depending on how you define “writing” and “online.”


For dinner this evening, a ragù bolognese that I started this afternoon. It came to me as I was clearing up the breakfast things that that was what I wanted for dinner, and, even more, what I wanted to fill the apartment with the scent of. It is savory taken to the verge of sweet. Actually (looking at the time), I’d better get the water on.

Weekend Note:
In All Its Stages
25-28 May 2012

Friday, May 25th, 2012


The weather is seriously disagreeable. It is always either too hot or too cold, and the air is so saturated that it is stuffy even in a breeze. Yesterday afternoon, I was quite sure that I was coming down with something, having sat by a fan for an hour or two, to the point of near-refrigeration. The mornings and evenings are densely foggy, which would be romantic if it weren’t so uncomfortable. Even the odd bursts of thunder are off-putting. They come out of nowhere and are always too loud, like an overgrown thirteen year-old, such as I was once.

The only good thing about the weather is that it suits reading about Ivy Compton-Burnett. About — not the novels themselves. I won’t be reading Compton-Burnett’s novels for a while yet; I’m still working up my nerve. (I heard yesterday that the three Elizabeth Taylor novels that I hadn’t got were safely arrived at Crawford Doyle, so I’ll be starting in on Palladian within the next couple of days.) No, the Ivy has been mitigated by a third party, one Robert Liddell. (A relation of Alice?) His Elizabeth and Ivy, a very slim volume from 1986, is a sort of scrap book, weaving a text out of excerpts from letters, often his own, and recollections of the two authors, with whom he formed what Francis King, in an introduction, calls an equilateral triangle: Ivy, Elizabeth, and Robert held each other’s work in the highest esteem (actually enjoying it, I mean), but only rarely found themselves in the same room. Where Ivy was involved, that room was invariably in her house in the direly apt Braemar Mansions, one of the deeper recesses of South Kensington if the A-Z is anything to go by. For his part, Liddell left England, never to return, in 1947, bereft of a beloved brother lost in the war. By then, he had taken tea with Ivy five times; Elizabeth and Ivy had not yet met. “English reserve” doesn’t begin to do justice. But of course these were writers, happier to scribe letters than to sit through “tea in all its stages” — one of Ivy’s mordant phrases.

As a precision bomber, Ivy flew somewhere between Oscar Wilde and Ruth Draper. Of a disapproved novel and its author, she remarked, “A side of life I know nothing about. And I can’t think how she does either.” But in Taylor’s words, Ivy’s was a “grim, uncosy life,” haunted by mad Victorian childhood horrors out of East Lynne. (Or so it seems from having tiptoed around them, and not reading the bits that threaten to be gruesome, in Hilary Spurling’s biography.) Only on days such as we’ve been having lately does it seem bearable to think about; the contrast is not so painfully sharp.

I don’t care much for Robert Liddell; he is fastidious. He, too, had a dreadful upbringing — a wicked stepmother — and he seems to have been in love with that brother. Life in the Levant — Cairo, Istanbul, and Athens finally — eking out a living working for the British Council, may have really suited him, but it comes off here, in Elizabeth and Ivy, as a sulk. The book is fussed by Liddell’s ambivalence about publishing private letters, even though at the time of publication their writers had been dead for more than ten years. Liddell and Taylor corresponded rather too elaborately about their pact of mutually-assured destruction, with results all to easy to predict.

I scrupulously carried out my promise to her, despite the dishonest if well-meant advice of various people who suggested that I should deposit her letters in a great library. I know about great libraries and their ways, having worked in one.

Later, to my surprise, I heard that my own letters [to her] were still in existence. She hadd told me that I might rely on their destruction, but the note which she left directing this had become deeply embedded among them. Her husband kindlyh returned them to me, and I was able to do a great deal of destruction for myself.

For my part, the destruction of documents of any kind is very bad, and the urge to destroy letters seems deeply unwholesome, suggesting as it does that they were meant only for pleasure of a cinq-à-sept nature. 


It is so good to be reading Elizabeth Taylor again. I had begun to forget the sound of her voice, of her quick, dry observations that are nonetheless packed with import. The three novels that I have yet to read arrived at Crawford Doyle the other day; I’d been very good and not bought them off the shelf in London. I might have done, had I seen Palladian, the one of the three that I’d resolved to read first. It’s a retelling, or refiguring — all drolly self-conscious on the heroine’s part — of Jane Eyre. I can’t put it down, and probably won’t.

Yesterday, Ms NOLA and I celebrated the return of Summer Hours — the publishing world’s free Friday afternoons — by running around in the heat and humidity until I, at least, was quite wilted. After a nice lunch, we went to the clothes shop where I buy the things are too special or pricey to order from catalogues, and found myself a jaunty summer jacket. I was hoping for color — yellow or peach would have been dreamy — but colors are out in these austere times, so I settled, not discontentedly, for a navy blazer adorned with chalk stripes too wide and too widely spaced for it to be mistaken for a suit jacket. On a smaller man, it would cry out for bow ties and boaters, but I don’t think that I’ll have any trouble making it work for me. And I bought some crazy Robert Graham socks. (Mine are in khaki, not orange.) 

Then we went to MoMA, to see the Cindy Sherman show. I can’t write about it yet, because my head is bursting with responses, many of them contradictory. It feels as though the work — the later, larger pieces, not the Untitled Film Stills, which are wonderful and have always been wonderful, and undeniably engaging as art — had absolutely nothing to do with “art,” but the towering pile of notions that it did give rise to seem to totter and waver as if about to fall into the familiar mess of “art not yet understood.” I was very glad that I didn’t miss the show, but at the same time I felt that the show had nothing to say to me. I gather that Ms Sherman is a charming, intelligent, and attractive woman, but her work is thoroughly mined by the misery of a plain, somewhat doughy adolescent girl whose brains were of no interest to anybody. (Least of all to herself.) The only certainty is that I have no need to see the show a second time — but who knows how long that will last?

Leaving MoMA, we had trouble finding a taxi. It was almost four o’clock, and the witching hours had already begun. Taxi after taxi flashed its off-duty lights and sped emptily past. I felt quite persecuted; dragging along midtown sidewalks was not how I wanted to expend what energy I had. Eventually we caght a cab on Madison, and went straight uptown to collect the Taylors.

Later, after Ms NOLA had gone off to run an errand of her own, before returning for dinner, I collected some boxes in the package room. Items that I ordered by phone on Wednesday arrived two days later. Well, in the case of the 25-pound bag of King Arthur Flour, the very next day. One of yesterday’s cartons contained three pairs of shorts, in burnt orange, lime, and Breton red, together with a seersucker shirt to with the orange shorts, which are cut a bit long and, arguably, regrettably, cargo shorts. I will not be wearing them out of the immediate neighborhood, and they’ll be great for Fire Island. I have just begun ordered pants and shorts in actual waist sizes, instead of elasticized ones; the latter are perfect for wearing around the house (I can’t bear to be in trousers when I’m working), but they come in the dreariest colors, sand, stone, mummy, ash-heap. Which reminds me of the most marvelous anecdote from Elizabeth and Ivy. Elizabeth Taylor’s first visit to Greece was on a cruise.

In a café in Rhodes three Englishwomen walked in wearing the most outlandish holiday clothes and panama hats, with lots of raincoats and cameras and walking sticks and rucksacks. They stood looking about for a waiter and one said in a loud voice: “How do we attract attention?”

(Oh, the joy of not once having been taken for American in Amsterdam. What is it about Anglophones abroad?)

Ms NOLA mentioned at lunch that, having been occupied by project involving endless photographs of cuts of red meat, she can’t think of eating it. So for dinner I made an absurdly plain shrimp and red bell pepper risotto, without seasoning of any kind. A few grinds of sea salt brought the dish to life at the table, where its simplicity was welcome alongside a vibrant cucumber salad that I’d bought ready-made, at Agata & Valentina.


The weather, having been unpleasantly various, has settled down to an unpleasant sultriness. The sun stays hidden away, which is perhaps a mercy. We have turned our backs to it in any case; we’re reorganizing cabinets and closets.

I’m saving the last closet for tomorrow, but not from laziness or procrastination. I want to save my strength for dinner. I was going to try something new last night: Poulet Robert, a recipe appearing in Elizabeth David’s posthumous collection, Is There a Nutmeg in the House? You take a chicken and brown it, whole, in fat that has been seasoned with the innards, some cubed ham, and an onion. Then you flame it in Calvados. After stirring in wine and mustard (the Robert part), you clap a lid on the pot and let the chicken simmer for forty minutes. Only then do you “joint” it — cut it up. But by the time Kathleen got home from her afternoon of utterly fruitless shopping (all she’s asking for is a nice black jacket, but no), it was too late to start following an unfamiliar recipe that would require at least an hour, so I put it off, and now I’ve got to do it tonight.

The thing is, I went ahead and served chicken last night anyway. I found two legs in the freezer and tossed them into a gratin dish with the tempura-like marinade that I use for chicken and London broil (a combination of safflower oil, hot sesame oil, soy sauce and lime juice), and baked them in a medium-hot oven for forty-five minutes. Then I ran the legs under the broiler. It was extremely simple, and far more successful than it deserved to be. But tonight, we have to pretend that we had something else last night.

I wouldn’t have cooked at all if it hadn’t been for the two ears of fresh corn that I’d picked up at Fairway. Corn, I’ve learned, really doesn’t keep. I don’t mean the wonderful fresh flavor, which dissipates very rapidly and never survives the trucking to Manhattan. I mean just the basic desirability as a foodstuff. Left on the counter, or in the fridge, overnight, the ears dry out and the kernels shrivel and I feel like an idiot. So, basically as they say, I cooked the chicken to go with the corn. And I felt marvelous! I was using up stuff that was just sitting around. The freezer and refrigerator are a long way from the emptiness that I yearn for, but they’re strikingly less cluttered than they used to be. As a matter of course — not just after a heave-ho session with the dubious leftovers. I don’t keep dubious leftovers anymore.

Before today’s closet session, I finished Palladian, and what a treat it was. “She was by now so much in love with him that she was ready at all times to take offence at what he said.” It is a deeply funny book. 


Just back from The Best  Exotic Marigold Hotel, which turned out to be a deeper and richer comedy than we expected it to be, happy endings notwithstanding. Question: where was Bill Nighy before he became such a big star?

Almost everyone in the audience was old enough (like me) to be retiring to the Marigold Hotel; one has to wonder what business opportunities the film will have opened. On the short walk home, Kathleen ventured that India would probably be more frightening to live in than China, as a retired person, but I disagreed, if only because insofar as India has a common educated language, it is English. Isn’t it?

Earlier, while Kathleen was reorganizing her wardrobe for the summer, I was listening to her playlist for a change: Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Hall & Oates, Bonnie Raitt and so on. It was shockingly dated. I could remember when all of it was new, the latest thing. I can’t say the same of Mozart, Schubert and Brahms: they have always been there, and they had always been there by the time I grew ears for music. All my life, performers have been working hard to transform what the classical composers wrote down into sound for all to hear, and every good performance has been a re-creation. I don’t know how long it has been since I listened to anything else; it has been months — well over six — since I last listened to my pop playlist.


The poulet Robert was a hit with Kathleen last night. I worried that it would have an odd, strong flavor, partly because the bird was stewed in wine but mostly because of the bird itself: next time, I must remember to write down the particulars on the label. It’s a farm brand carried only by Fairway, so far as I know, and I’ve never seen chickens quite like. The drumsticks are unusually long and slender, as is the body, once you get the bird out of the plastic. The meat is not so tender, and the flavor borders on gaminess. I thought I’d bought something else. But last night, it came out very well. I stuck to the recipe, and resisted adding a dab of cream to thicken the sauce. I was surprised that the cavatappi noodles that I served alongside the chicken flourished in the brothy sauce.

After dinner, we watched A Question of Attribution, Alan Bennett’s 1992 adaptation of his play about Sir Anthony Blunt and “HMQ” for the BBC, with James Fox and Prunella Scales. It’s still very exciting — but rather a shock to think that it was made twenty years ago. When the Queen strides into the gallery, you think: imagine carrying a handbag in one’s own house. I suppose that Her Majesty does so whenever she leaves her private apartments, but one wonders. James Fox is marvelously impatient as Blunt — almost everything that crosses his path is a potential bore, and he hasn’t got the grace to conceal it. The Queen is just the opposite: prepared to take interest (or at least to seem to do so) in any kind of information. Thanking Blunt for the little art tutorial that he delivers about her Titian, she looks forward to opening a public swimming pool and learning about pumps. The aristocrat is almost childishly transparent; his sovereign is inscrutable. Does she know, you wonder. Does she know, that is, that Blunt is a traitor, about to be disgraced? It’s hard to believe that she would see fit to be so civil to a spy whose tattlings may have contributed to the deaths of British soldiers and other operatives.

In Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the character played by Celia Imrie tries to join a club at reduced rates by claiming to be Princess Margaret. The manager compliments her on having kept her good looks for the nine years since her death, and seats her opposite Prince Michael of Kent, who of course turns out to be the philandering member of her own party, played by Ronald Pickup. Which would work better for me, under those circumstances, Captain Smith of the Titanic or Santa Claus?

In a little while, I’ll make a salad with the white meat.

Weekend Note:
Longer Weekends
14 May 2012

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

Just a quick note, the first of several, perhaps, this one to say that I’m home. We’re home — but the bags are not home. As for me, this is not the worst thing in the world; my suitcase contains nothing but books and clothes, all of which, presumably, can be re-acquired if the bag has been truly lost. That’s probably not what happened, though. We switched flights in Heathrow after checking in, and our bags are probably in Newark, our original destination.

Otherwise, all is well, and a visit from the downtown branch of the family has been scheduled. It is very good to sit in my reading chair and to shower in plumbing about which there is nothing exotic. Also: how nice to drink tea, not tea-bags, again.


How pleasant it is, to sit at my console in New York, and to review the route that our taxi took from London to Heathrow yesterday afternoon. I can now say that I have had a nice taste of Acton and Ealing — and Southall. Isn’t that nice? We detoured from the Northern Circular Road (A406), along what for most of our way seems to be known as Uxbridge Road (A4020), to the Parkway (A312). As we inched along with the suburban traffic, congested by Saturday shopping, I was carried back to the childhood horrors of Central Avenue and downtown White Plains, captives of my mother’s sporting jaunts in pursuit of bargain specials, which she saw no reason to leave to people who really needed them. When we drove by the psychiatric unit at St Bernard’s, I dreamed for a moment of being committed there for a rest cure; anything would have been preferable to the experience of sitting in a car at two or three miles an hour.   


Although beguiled by visions of a nice dinner at home, prepared by me and served with love &c, I had the sense to recognize that I was simply too tired to stand in the kitchen and whip something up. So we went to the Seahorse Tavern, our current Café Default. Not three minutes after we got back, the phone rang. Are you at home, the voice wanted to know. It was a voice connected to our baggage. Oh, yes, I was at home! And I’d be downstairs in a minute! Downstairs, there was a van in the driveway, and a man shuffling things in the back, but looking at me, as I looked at him. “Keefe?” he inquired. Hallelujah! That was my huge green sofa of a suitcase in his hands. What about Kathleen’s bag? Nowhere to be seen in the back. “It’s got flowers,” I said, by way of marking the Vera Bradleyness of Kathleen’s luggage. Oh, that! he said. That bag had the passenger seat of his van all to itself.

So, now we have our bags, and I have to tell you that what really bothered me about not having them was the books. Not the clothes, which would cost a pretty penny to replace (me being moi, maxi avoirdupois), but the books. The books that I had bought in the teeth of a determination to buy, if not no books, then  as few as possible. Glorious as it was to see Will this afternoon, it would have been gloriouser if I’d had Groene eieren met ham on hand. (Not that I’m remotedly capable of reading it aloud to him, not yet.) The books meant so much! And I could not convince myself that it was going to be easy to replace them. The Shakespeare sonnets that I wrote about the other day, and that I was telling Kathleen about on our way home from dinner! Nescio! The great Routledge dictionary that I picked up at the Athenaeum! It was going to be like reconstituting the Library of Alexandria, getting all those books a second time. 

Only, now it isn’t. They’re here.

Until this afternoon, I had no idea that Carl Schurz Park contains ten thousand miles of paths and four hundred thousand stairs. All Will wanted to do was to cover all of them, down to the last inch, several times if possible. He had no interest in playgrounds or dog runs. (He did exhibit, as I’ve noticed before, a fascination with the twelve year-old juvenile delinquents who gathered like a pack of crows at the bottom of the allée: my grandson, the would-be teen.) He wanted to move, and move we did. We walked; Will galloped. Or cantered, I suppose it was. His hopping around stirred Kathleen’s nostalgia. “When I did that, I pretended that I was holding a crop.”

The trick that really captured my atttention was his crying out “Water!” while pointing in the correct direction, blocks from the park and any conceivable view of the East River. Somehow, he remembered — he hasn’t been to Carl Schurz since early last fall.

It was the first thing that occurred to me, once I knew that I was really going to Amsterdam and London with Kathleen, and returning on a Saturday. Would Megan and Ryan and Will come uptown on brunch on the Sunday? Kathleen and I would be tired, really too tired to go downtown ourselves, but we would really want to see Will and his parents. What I hadn’t expected was that Will would give us the introductory tour to a neighborhood park that we had somehow, in the course of thirty years’ residence, missed.

Having looked at the image below far far longer than is decent, I feel obliged to apoligize for its MGM character. We really were having a great time.

Weekend Note:
4 May 2012

Friday, May 4th, 2012


Kathleen has just left. She’s going to spend the weekend with her father in Durham. She’ll be back on Sunday. My own plans for the weekend are simple: I’ll see a movie this afternoon and then sit with Will while his parents go out to dinner; and, tomorrow afternoon, I’ll have a look at the pre-dynastic installation in the Egyptian galleries at the Museum. I think that I’ll be able to manage that. It’s hard to think very clearly this morning. We had a thunderstorm, about an hour ago. For the third day, the sky is leaden and the air is neither wintry nor warm, but uncomfortably indifferent.

It’s a good weekend for digesting the altera pars of Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother? I’ve just pulled down Fun Home, the “family tragicomic” that came out, astonishingly, six years ago (that long!). It’s shorter, it’s more roughly drawn, and it’s a much simpler, more straightforward read — as would befit comparisons between a book about a father and a book about a mother. Most of yesterday afternoon went to Are You My Mother? I read it in about three sittings, almost breathlessly, trying to keep track of the constantly-shifting time frame and to absorb all the ideas of Donald Winnicott that serve as a kind of ground-bass to the story. Then I got to the last box. “She has given me the way out.” I felt a shocking discharge; the tears popped out of my eyes and I gasped for breath. There was nothing intrinsically surprising about this last line; it simply culminated everything that went before. Everything. It was the way out of the book, too, of course: “this way to the egress.”

The Bechdel family saga involves an openly homosexual daughter and a closeted homosexual father, but it doesn’t stop there. What, exactly, is the problem between Alison and her mother, Helen? Growing up, Alison found her mother to be distant, and as an adult she came to wish that her mother were more interested in her life — more prying, even. What wounds and dissatisfactions held Helen back? I don’t think that she will ever tell us; she’s on record in this book as holding memoir (as a literary form) in contempt. But perhaps there is no need for a memoir, if Helen can say, in one memorable outburst, “I regret that I wasn’t Helen Vendler.” What doesn’t that tell us?

I came away from the first reading persuaded that mother and daughter were literary rivals in much the same way that a father and a son might be, and that the mother quite beautifully managed her side of the rivalry by staying out of her daughter’s way. Bad mothering, perhaps (inadequate, certainly), but, as the book says at the end, “the way out.” The mother-daughter connection, qua female, was something of a red herring, particularly as the two women never competed sexually. There was a hole in Alison’s infancy — when she was about three months old, her mother became pregnant again, and Helen always made more of her two boys — and much of Are You My Mother? is an analysis — a psychoanalysis — of that gap and how the adult Bechdel dealt with it. The book is so good — The Pain Recaptured would have made a good title — that it is easy to overlook the obvious: mother and daughter were (are) both serious writers. Helen Bechdel isn’t Helen Vendler, and Alison Bechdel tells stories graphically, but they are still, both of them,  intellectual hunters after truth. I don’t know anything about the brothers, but the evidence suggests that Helen and Alison are the men in the family. 


Among my more egregious sins, lately, I’ve been failing to write up the movies that I see. The Five-Year Engagement is a marvelous picture that deserves nothing less than hosannas; perhaps I’ll get to it on Sunday. Perhaps I’ll see it again, in the theatres, with Kathleen (not very likely before our trip to Amsterdam, though). Today, I saw a film that elicited a very different response, but as it won’t take long to state it I’ll jump in even though it’s nearly ten and I’ve just had a good time with Will, if you know what I mean. (Which you don’t unless you’re my age. He was an angel, but he did order me around a bit.) I think that it’s better to write about Damsels in Distress late in the evening than early in the morning, when I have more energy.

I was disappointed, first by the production values and then by the story, such as it was. I’m all for making movies on the cheap, but I’m not a fan of cheap-looking movies, and there were moments in Damsels that reminded me of the educational filmstrips that we used to have sit through in Sixties auditoriums. The visuals were not crisp and the sound took some getting used to. It was a long, long way from Barcelona.

The story makes sense only as an undergraduate project. If Whit Stillman were to tell me that he’d pulled a scenario out of a college trunk, I’d have thought, exactly. The point of view was the kind of muddle that’s inevitable when you think (as some sophomores really do) that everything you do is très cool. It was almost, but not quite, a train wreck. Is Damsels a satire of upscale dimwits loitering in the Groves of Academe, or is it merely set there, like Too Many Girls and My Lucky Star? The entire dancing business, all of it, was strange at best and just wrong most of the time. (If only the Sambola had been a dance sensation!) And I was less and less sure about Greta Gerwig’s character as the movie progressed; by the end, I was thinking that Payne Whitney might be the place for her. There were lots of good things in the movie (Analeigh Tipton, Ryan Metcalf, and Megalyn Echikunwoke all deserved more time in the spotlight). But they didn’t cohere, so they couldn’t offset the terrible things in the movie (the Cathars! the Roman Holidays!). There were too many fizzled plotlines (it would have been better with no professors, and the whole Daily Complainer line was hardly more salvageable than the dancing), all of them more engaging than they would have been with a strong central plot.

The worst of it was this awful fear, that Whit Stillman never saw Mean Girls.

Nevertheless, I recommend Damsels in Distress, partly out of class loyalty (I’ll be honest) and partly out of class treason. I don’t know how I’m going to feel about it the second time around. There will be a second viewing; there almost always is. Question is: will there be a third?


What a glorious evening I’ve just had. It’s my new model for a night out on the town. First of all: not a “night”; it’s not even ten, and here I am at the keyboard. The second thing is that I would have had an even better time if Kathleen had been with us, because then, of course, we could talk all night about everything that we learned.

At four o’clock, I met up with Marc LeBlanc, Ms NOLA’s brother, a very nice guy who also happens to be a credentialed Egyptologist (PhD Yale, 2011). He conducted me through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s installation of pre-dynastic objects, at the bottom of the Lehman Wing. The fact that I had never given such objects much of a thought made the visit what we used to call “a trip.”

“Pre-dynastic,” it occurred to me on the walk home from dinner, is not the way to put it. “Ante-dynastic” is, as in “ante-bellum,” the phrase that used to denote life in the United States between Jackson and the Civil War. The culture of Egypt before unification under the pharoahs (Marc is rigorous about speaking of “kings”) was not erased by what came later; it was simply developed. Certain things were dropped, such as the “bird dance,” or whatever it was that was signified by the representation of a female profile (none too hippy or busty, by the bye) raising her arms over her head in a heart-shaped manner, fingers pointing down. Some scholars believe that the gesture is meant to suggest the horns of a heifer, but Marc is not persuaded by this theory; he thinks that a bird is the object of imitation. I was inclined to agree, but the uncertainty is not without its appeal. There is always much to be learned.

Other things, such as boats, became fixtures of Egyptness. Also, palm trees and chorus lines of ostriches. (Well, chorus lines.) The objects at the Museum begin by looking generically “archeological”; hippopotamuses (all of whom look pretty much like Tiger in Kipper) are the only Egyptian cue. Then human figures appear. A few cases on, and you get to the palettes. The palettes are ceremonial inkstones, as it were, for the preparation of ceremonial makeup; the working center of each palette is a perfectly rimmed circle in which the cosmetics were ground. I think that we’re talking about make-up for men here: men for whom the difference between hunting, religion, and warfare did not exist. I hope to write more about the palettes after further visits; I’ve never seen anything like them, and they are not only fascinating but brilliantly executed. Marc can’t have imagined how far I was from being bored by his explication. If I slowed down now and then, it was only because I was soaking everything up. I saw serekhs everywhere, especially before I knew how to spell them. (A serekh is the royal insignia, inscribed in a square and topped by a falcon. Literally, the square part of a serekh is the wall of a king’s palace.) I was more disappointed by the end of new things to look at than I have ever been in my life. I was just getting started!

So I asked Marc to take me through the Egyptian Wing itself, the part of the Museum that I know least well. I’m glad that I’d waited for this particular guided tour, because it was as though someone (namely Marc) were saying, “And all of this is just down the street from your house, too.” Here’s one great thing that I learned. By the time of Rameses II (I’m spelling it the old way, I think), the ancient Egypt that I’d discovered at the pre-dynastic show was already ancient Egypt! It was already thousands of years old, more or less, and ripe for rediscovery and retooling. Retooling? We’ll talk about Amenhotep III’s Colonial Williamsburg ball some other time. In the Great Hall of the Museum, right in front of the Membership desk, there stands a great granitic statue of Amenemhat II (1929-1895 BCE), from Berlin. Thing is, the cartouches — the rounded lozenges in which the king’s name is inscribed — say “Ramses II.” And why not, Rameses, or Ramesses, okay (watch out, or I’ll call him “Ramsay”), was a Very Great King (1303-1213) in whom I have always had a close interest, because, like me, he suffered from ankylosing spondylitis — even if Wikipedia says he didn’t. But forget about that; the point is that, even in Egypt, nothing was sacred. I joshed with Marc about it. I said that the reinscription may have been effected without royal directive. Maybe Ramesses was on a tour, and the good folks in Thebes wanted to welcome him warmly. “What have we got?” said the mayor to his minions. I realize that this is sounding more Preston Sturges than Dio Cassio. But I will tell you this. By the time we got to the statue in the Great Hall, I would have recognized Ramses’s cartouche anywhere. (And it is all over Amenemhat, the poor sod.)

We were on the point of leaving the Museum for dinner when I asked Marc if there was anything that he wanted to see. The upshot of that was that we went up to the Irving Galleries in the Asia Wing, which are more often closed than not. I wished that I could have told him more about the luohans, but we liked them well enough without my blather.

After that, we had a good dinner at Demarchelier — after which it was great to walk outside into the cool evening. Marc persuaded me (without trying) that I really have to see The Wire. Walking down 86th Street in the middle of the Saturday night, I felt that I was having as great a time as anybody. And I still do, except that now I’ve done the writing and must be prepared for the edits. Better edits than smitings!


Last Saturday, when I headed downtown for Ray Soleil’s party, I left Kathleen in bed, weeding through her emails. I also left a playlist running. The next day, she told me what a pleasure it had been to listen the music through the afternoon and into the evening — it stopped only shortly before I came home. I could not have been more pleased. I had compiled the playlist for weekend lazing, which is to say with a firm awareness of what Kathleen would like to listen to and what she wouldn’t, and it was great to know that I had accomplished just that. She thanked me, which was the most unlooked-for pleasure. Not Kathleen’s thanking me, but thanking me for the music.

Compiling another playlist this afternoon (this one built around Handel’s two sets of keyboard suites) I’m remembering how awful it used to be —I used to be — when I’d play records for friends. “Oh, you must hear this.” “Wait, there’s something else that you’ve just got to hear!” “This will only take a second; it’s very short.” “I thought it was this cut; it must be the next one.” How good people were, on the whole, to put up with such torture. Now, I’m absolutely mystified by the need that I had to make other people hear the music that I happened to be crazy about. I have lost the urge to “share.” And I don’t “play records” anymore. I can’t underline sharply enough how the act of listening to music at home has been transformed by these vast iTunes playlists that I’ve been putting together for five years.


Having stayed up late last night — I watched the outstanding Charlize Theron in Young Adult, and would have perished of sympathetic mortification if I hadn’t been too tired for strong feelings — I slept in this morning, getting up at ten, breakfasting at half-past noon, and getting dressed quite indecently late. After spending a few hours with the Times, I picked up The Turn of the Screw and read as much as I could before the pot of rich, dark coffee that I’d drunk made it impossible to continue. Kathleen flies home this evening; she’ll have had an early dinner with her father and brother before boarding the plane. I’m thinking of watching a movie that I’ve never heard of.


And the question is, why haven’t, or hadn’t, I heard of Stephen Poliakoff’s Glorious 39? Or, for the matter of that, Stephen Poliakoff? He seems to be a one-man TV industry in Britain, and Glorious 39 is the sort of movie that you’d expect American Anglophiles to gobble right up. Imagine: Brideshead Revisited meets Remains of the Day, with a dash of Atonement. The cast includes Julie Christie and Bill Nighy, also Jeremy Northam, Eddie Redmayne, and Juno Temple. Romola Garai is the star. She plays the adopted daughter of a very grand family, from which she is cut apart by the discovery of its participation in an aristocratic attempt to steer the UK toward surrender to Hitler — a conspiracy that is not shy of murder. I forgot Notorious — there’s more of a dash of that in Glorious 39. Hitchcock is definitely in the air. (I also forgot to mention Hugh Bonneville, who, with Charlie Cox, is one of at least two Downton Abbey stars on hand.) Melodramatic and gorgeous at the same time, Glorious 39 is perhaps a tad sententious, but it kept me on the edge of my seat just the same. When I ordered it, from Amazuke, I prepared myself for something awful, because otherwise there’s no explaining why the picture wasn’t shown and isn’t known over here. Or perhaps I’ve just had another one of my senior moments, and everyone knows all about it.  

Weekend Note:
Global Crazy
27-30 April 2012

Friday, April 27th, 2012

Where did April go?

I was about to go to the movies just now, but I’d have been a bit early, so I sat down and here I am. I’m going to see The Five-Year Engagement, largely because I adore Emily Blunt. She is always winsome — even in The Devil Wears Prada, there are moments of extreme winsomeness. What will become of this quality when the actress outgrows it? Or will she? Winsomeness is a special kind of dreamy hope about the future that makes young women beautiful and men of any age rather fatuous, unless they’re extremely frail-looking and marked for early death. (Who is marked for early death anymore? Tant pis pour la poésie.) Jason Segel, Ms NOLA told me, was asked to lose thirty pounds of avoirdupois for this movie. Which means that he may actually have a figure. His appearance in Jeff, Who Lives At Home was just this side of animated, and I don’t mean lively. I should note that I made up my mind to see the film on the strength of A O Scott’s really rather warm review in today’s Times.

Okay, now I can go.


The Five-Year Engagement is so good that I am STILL CRYING. All right, only when I think about it. But when I think about it, the waterworks start pumping! This wouldn’t be the case if the movie hadn’t ended happily, with possibly the ideal wedding, all things considered. (And all things were considered, which was the problem to begin with.)

The immediately foregoing is, I realize, evidence of my insuperable difficulties with Twitter. If I can’t have roughly 350 characters in which to say something, I won’t say anything.


Oh, the plans. I wanted to write about principles, as distinct from habits, and much less useful. I seem to have engaged in a project of discrediting the non-aesthetic legacy of the classical world, by which I mean, primarily, philosophy, a realm of thought that I don’t expect to survive the Cognitive Revolution. I believe that “acting on principle” is almost invariably childish; the phrase itself means nothing if it doesn’t mean acting against instinct and intuition. This isn’t to say that the objects of principles are unimportant, but rather to say that, if you’re refraining from murder as a matter of principle, then I hope that we’re not friends. I understand that principles help us to see over our immediate desires and short-sighted objectives. But they just as often make us do pigheaded things (the entire brain-dead scheme of “zero tolerance” comes to mind, as does “three strikes and you’re out”), and we ought to be able to be good without their aid. That would be adult.

Aristotle was right about habits, though; they’re tremendously important. When I was young, I thought that habitual acts were inauthentic. So I stopped saying “thank you.” We all go through such a phase; if we’re lucky, it lasts for only a few days. Flaubert had it right: you have to behave as regularly as possible so that your inner fire can burn as fiercely as possible. Without habits, we would live in chaos, and chaos is uninhabitable on the long term.

I also meant to deal with the refrigerator, but I couldn’t face it, so I spent the afternoon organizing my EMI CDs, of which there are of course many. The EMIs were the first discs to be “broken down” — the discs themselves inserted in labeled sleeves and tucked alongside their paperwork (booklets, back matter), and the jewel boxes thrown away — and I didn’t have a system for organizing the results; in fact, I hadn’t grasped the importance of the “tucked alongside” part. So two hours were devoted to re-uniting discs and booklets. It was just the kind of busy work I needed this afternoon, and I enjoyed listening to the Karajan Ring while I plowed through it.

You really really really couldn’t pay me to see the Ring at the Metropolitan Opera, something that a number of friends are doing this weekend and into next week. I love Wagner far too much to put up with Robert Lepage’s planks. The ideas people have!


Where to begin — that’s not the question. Where to end is the question. The weekend is technically over, but it left behind a bit of baggage that I’d like to dispose of before getting on with the week. I feel rather bad about not spending any time here. I was detained by a full array of excuses, ranging from hyper-efficient busyness on the housekeeping front to a sidewinding hangover that was stamped by the image, drawn from Friday’s movie (The Five-Year Engagement), of Jason Segel stumbling through a snowy woods, wearing socks, a muffler, a jacket, and a cap, and nothing else.

It was a different sort of hangover. It struck very early in the morning, at about five. I didn’t wake up still a little bit drunk (oh, that wasn’t so bad). I was gripped, at the metabolic level, by an existential anguish so intense that I had to get out of bed. I had a terrible headache, yes, and I felt vaguely poisoned throughout, yes; but I was wretchedly disappointed with myself. What had I been thinking, going out with a large group of men to dinner at the Knickerbocker. The situation ensured that all my manic buttons would be pushed at once, transforming me into a master bon viveur. And that, just as suddenly, the effect would be undone, and I would be sprawled in a gutter of senectitudinal shame. It had been so long since my last misbehavior that I’d quite forgotten how it might all work out. By the same token, it had been so long since that last time that it never occurred to me, even in my wildest exilharation, to drink anything stronger than sauvignon blanc. I drank a lot of wine. Then I got into a taxi and came home and went to bed. There was no public disgrace, no nakedness in the woods, no amputation of toes, no breaking-up of longstanding engagements. There was none of that. This hangover was confined entirely within my body.

For relief, I turned to Bruce Donaldson’s Colloquial Dutch (Routledge). In my chair by the window, I deployed the familiar but never-mastered points of Nederlands grammar in a scheme to jam the outgoing messages of bleak despair. It was imperative, it seemed, that I learn how to speak Dutch immediately. For I was going to Amsterdam after all. That had been settled the previous morning, after Kathleen, having read some fine print somewhere, conducted a ninety-minute transaction with a bookings agent and secured comfortable transatlantic passage for me (and for herself as well) on a flight leaving Newark for Heathrow (the coach ride from there to Schiphol was never a problem) in two weeks.

As the clerk in the electronics shop where I was buying a small radio said when I told him that I was trying to learn his language said: Why? With whom am I actually going to speak in the local language? And how far is this conversation going to proceed before it breaks down? Colloquial Dutch is about as well put-together a language course as you will find in one volume (Teach Yourself Dutch is also very good), but, perhaps because it’s designed for people who are actually going to live in the country for a while, its narrative premise, its cast of characters and representative dialogues, is that of family life. Piet and Pauline (she’s English) have two children, Marius and Charlotte. Marius is said to be seven years old (he celebrates a birthday — hij is jarig), but he behaves like a death star of adolescent self-absorption. His parents seem to get on one anothers’ nerves. It’s all usefully realistic — if you’re going to be living in a Nederlander household for a while. It really doesn’t sample the kind of things that I’d be likely to say.

Which would be?

On our way home, we’ll stop in London for a few days, so that Kathleen can check up on some clients. What will I say in London that requires advanced language training? To whom will I reveal my mastery of subordinate clauses? Come to think of it, when do such interactions occur here in New York? They don’t.

The hotel that we’ll be staying at is in De Pijp, a neighborhood southeast of the Museum Quarter, on the Jozef Israelskade. I believe that, in order to walk to the Spui (where the bookstores are), all I have to do is turn right at the hotel door, turn right again into Ferdinand Bolstraat, and keep walking (and walking), crossing the Singelgracht and proceeding to the Munt, where I’ll turn left along the Singel. I doubt that I’ll need to ask anyone for directions. The Rijksmuseum is almost on the way. All this I can see from Google Maps — what I didn’t already know, that is, from my last visit, when we stayed about a block away from the museum. If I feel very brave, I will ask for a taxi at the hotel and go to the Central Station, where I’ll catch a train for The Hague, where I can see Vermeer’s View of Delft and, of course, The Girl With the Pearl Earring. (Talk is cheap.)

I’ll certainly understand television broadcasts better than I did the last time, and I’ll be able to read more signs. But in Amsterdam, at least, it is not hard to find someone who speaks English. And in any case Bruce Donaldson’s exercises distracted me from the pain of detox until I was able to fall back into bed for a snooze. A late brunch with a law school classmate who’s in town for the Ring cycle was pleasant (Sancerre), but I took things very easy, ordering Chinese on the very early side and turning in not much later.


I hope to see The Five-Year Engagement again soon. I want to take Kathleen to see it, but, between our Amsterdam trip and an intervening visit to her father in North Carolina, Kathleen isn’t going to have a lot of free time in the next two weeks. Engagement is a wonderful picture, studded with beautifully-timed quirks and brought to life by a top-notch cast. Judd Apatow is going to wind up with his own studio one of these days. I jest, perhaps, but I do seriously begin to see parallels with a hiterto nonpareil: Preston Sturges. Qua moviemakers, that is; their movies themselves are not at all alike, beyond being funny. If I get hit by a bus before I have a chance to talk about The Five-Year Engagement at greater length, at least I’ll have noted the brilliant riff of taking Elmo and the Cookie Monster hostage as a way of “speaking French” in front of children.

Weekend Note:
20-22 April 2012

Friday, April 20th, 2012


The weekend will be bracketed by parties. This evening, we celebrate Kathleen’s birthday as well as that of an old friend, here; and, on Sunday, we cross town for an Open House on Riverside Drive — an old classmate of Kathleen’s has redone her apartment.

I hope to finish Donna Leon’s Beastly Things, which I’ve been rating as better-than-average Brunetti, probably because Signorina Elettra figures prominently. Not only that, but Vianello, Brunetti’s most trusted colleague, insists on commiserating, if that’s the words, about the signorina’s almost certainly illegal Internet searches: the worst of it is, he says, that, like serial murders, he and Brunetti have come to enjoy this criminal activity. Readers certainly do. Signorina Elettra is a sort of porn goddess of information. Elegant and elusive, she will produce, for her faithful acolytes, everything that there is to know about businessment and politicians. If she worked for a newspaper, it would collapse in a month, from sheer flagrancy. Leon’s ironic achievement is to make an Orwellian police force appear to be benign.  


The desserts are here, and the salmon mousse is in the fridge. I’ve got a few things to do today, but I’ve tried to make it easy on myself. We will be eight at table: the maximum. The three ladies are all slight, but four of the five men are not, and it will be a jolly squeeze. I’ve planned four courses: a pea and lettuce soup; the mousse, with a salad of endive, apples, and Roquefort; a beef tenderloin with béarnaise, and sweet potatoes; and finally the two cakes from Greenberg.

When I went to pick up the cakes yesterday, the assistant said to me, “Oh, Mr Keefe, I called you; we have a problem; the cakes will be late.” At the end of a bit of hemming and hawing, the assistant said that she would drop off the cakes on her way home. I don’t think that this unexpected offer was motivated by umbrage on my part, but sometimes, just standing there, I can look pretty fierce. I made it a point to be near the phone toward the end of the afternoon, and shortly after four, it rang, and the assistant told me that her “boss” was going to swing by in her car and leave them with the doorman. I gathered up my keys and my book and went down to the lobby at once. I stood there for ten rather uncertain minutes, wondering if the subway construction would make pulling into our driveway difficult. I alternately read and fretted in little bits. But when a dark SUV stopped at the door, I could see the top of a Greenberg shopping bag perched next to the driver, whom I approached before she could get out of her car. Her passenger side window was up, so she couldn’t hear me when I asked if she was dropping off the cakes to which I was pointing. She shook her head sweetly but briskly, the sensible standard way of dealing with officious madmen in New York. But I persisted. Eventually the window was lowered. When I repeated my question, eyebrows shot up and I was asked if I was Mr Keefe. It occurs to me now that I could have simply said that I was. Which of course I did. The cakes were handed over.

The tenderloin has just been delivered.


I’ve just embarked on the seventh novel of Elizabeth Taylor. Not her seventh, but the seventh to read. I’ve chosen A Wreath of Roses, largely because Lauren, at Crawford Doyle, remarked yesterday that it may be her favorite. The fact that it was written before Angel was also a factor in my decision. Angel, something of an outlier in Taylor’s oeuvre, makes a convenient divider between the early novels, which are shadowed by the sickly pall of postwar austerity, and the late novels, in which the exuberance that followed is seen to have deracinating effects. For a good part of yesterday, I read The Soul of Kindness, a later novel by these lights, and it ministered to my convalescent soul, recovering from the previous night’s chute of despair. I cannot say that yesterday was a wretched day, but it was not a happy one, not until I really understood what Mrs Folley’s love-letters were all about. In The Soul of Kindness, Mrs Folley is a housekeeper who presumes to read “recently rediscovered” love letters, ostensibly addressed to her younger self, to her employer, a well-born woman who finds herself adrift after the marriage of her beloved daughter, Flora (“the soul of kindness”). Mrs Secretan, the employer, is horribly embarrassed by these readings, not only because of their fatuous effusions but because she can “recognize the handwriting.” At first I took this to hint at terrible infidelities on the part of someone dear to Mrs Secretan, but in time the fog lifted, and I saw who the author really was, and when I did I couldn’t stop laughing for ten minutes. The laughter came in involuntary barking bursts, like hiccups; each convulsion emptied my mind, but only for a moment, as the lunacy of Mrs Folley’s folly quickly flooded it again, prompting another exclamation. Of course I was also laughing at my own thickness.


There’s a lot to be said for hosting a dinner party on a Friday night, especially if Saturday is your day for tidying up the house. I’ll be at it all day, cleaning up and tidying, but I’m in no hurry, and I’ve resolved to leave more of the dirty work to the dishwasher, which certainly takes its time.

Kathleen had a wonderful evening and thought that the party was a great success. I think that it would be have been much more pleasant if I had thought through where to put the bar. Poor planning had me carving the tenderloin and slicing the cakes on a tray table at an odd angle to my chair; poor Ms NOLA, sitting to my right, was very inconvenienced, not to say alarmed that something might tip off the edge of the rackety workspace. All that slicing could have been done at the sideboard, by the kitchen door, but I had foolishly set up the bar there, when it ought to have been on the writing table in the living room.

Other than that… the béarnaise sauce broke in the making, but I patched it back together with additional egg yolks. Everything else more or less prepared itself. The ring of salmon mousse, filled with a salad of apple, endive and green onion that was dressed with nothing more than roquefort and the juice of an orange that had been lying about and getting in the way on the counter, would make a very nice luncheon dish or perhaps even a late-night supper, with nothing needed but a crusty loaf. The pea soup was too thick, porridgy even, but it tasted spring-like. The roast was done to a turn and tasted every cent of its five-figure price (I exagerrate slightly). The sweet potatoes — I’m in danger of overdoing them, making them too often. They’re frightfully easy and they taste like dessert, but anything can be overplayed. I had meant to steam some Yukon Golds and then, after ricing, pipe them into duchesse potatoes, but that would have stretched my logistics and risked ruining everything.

As Kathleen and I waited in the foyer for the guests to arrive — how nice it was to have Kathleen there with me, the first to arrive perhaps but not a guest — I thought that, if I sat down, I should never stand up, and that, when I did stand up, I would forget how to serve dinner. In the event, I was revived by the rush of talk with which the party began. And, when everybody left, I had the vigor to fill the empty dishwasher and get the clean-up going.


I had to fight back tears at the end of Beastly Things, Donna Leon’s latest and, I think, greatest Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery. The scene was tremendously affecting, loaded with pathos. I was sorry to close the book; I had enjoyed reading it very much. Especially the part that I read yesterday at lunch.

Before beginning the day’s preparations for the evening’s party, I treated myself to lunch at the Seahorse Tavern, which is tucked just off Second Avenue on 85th Street. The high-rise apartment building across the street was built in the era of public spaces; its foundations stand well back from the curb, and the public space is planted with so many trees that, from a table in the open French door of the tavern, I could imagine an Italian piazza, perhaps even a Venetian camp. The day was so lovely and the traffic so slight that I could even imagine that 85th Street itself was a canal. Although wrapped in the book, I was not unaware of pleasant surroundings. And I noticed right away that a woman passing by was detouring toward me. She was a handsome woman younger than myself, carrying two shopping bags; she reminded me very much of one of Kathleen’s old summercamp friends. She smiled at me and said that she had just “this very minute” bought the book I was reading; was it as good as the others? I said that it was great, and that, in keeping with Leon’s issue-oriented writing, the new book was about slaughterhouses. “Can’t wait,” she said, and was on her way. Only then did I think what I ought to have said, which is that Signorina Elettra is back. She never really went away, but I missed her in the more recent books.

Here is a passage that made me stop and think, while I was enjoying lunch on the rio 85imo:

The softness of the late afternoon encouraged him to walk in the vague direction of San Polo, turning or stopping where whim indicated. He had known this part of the city decades ago, when he took the train daily to Padova to attend his university classes and chose to walk back and forth to the station because it saved him — how much had it been then? — the fifty lire of boat fare. It had been enough for a sweet drink or a coffee; he recalled with the affection age brings to the weaknesses of youth that he had chosen coffee only when with his classmates, giving in to his normal preference for sweet drinks when alone and there was no one to judge his choice unsophisticated.

For a moment, he considered stopping for one of those drinks, if he could only remember their names. But he was a man and had laid aside the things of childhood, and so he stopped for a coffee, smiling at himself as he poured in the second envelope of sugar.

The Biblical reference struck a scolding note, I thought at first, as though Brunetti were obliging himself to pretend to forget the names of those sweet drinks. But I looked at it again and the note did not strike; I saw what it was to lay aside childish things. It means to forget them — in effect, to lose them forever. (Proust’s madeleine is of course a reminder that old memories can be surprised into life by circumstances, but that is something else.) When I was growing up, from the age of seven until who knows when, I was very anxious about becoming a man; when would it happen, and how would I know. In a way, it never did happen; then it was seen to have happened. Very much like going to sleep.


A dreary day. Kathleen has been working full time on her small computer, trading the convenience of three screens at the office for that of staying home. We shall be attending this evening’s party on the early side, as we must leave early for dinner with a business friend of Kathleen’s who is in from London. I thought about working in the kitchen, straightening some cabinets and taking stock of the refrigerator, but it seemed wiser to give myself a break after Friday’s party and yesterday’s cleanup (which took a full five hours). It was also more agreeable to read, and to finish, A Wreath of Roses, Elizabeth Taylor’s “dark” novel.

The principal scene of this novel is the country cottage of a woman at the end of middle age who happens to be a highly-regarded painter. Every summer, two women come to spend their holiday with her, one of them her charge from governessing days (we are reminded that Taylor herself was a governess, before she married), and the other that charge’s friend from Swiss boarding school. The younger women would have to be in their thirties, because they’ve been enjoying this annual gathering for a very long time. But now everything is different. One girl has married and had a baby. The other is retracting into spinsterhood. And Frances, the painter, finds herself passing, as introducer Helen Dunmore puts it, from “self-sufficiency to the weakness of old age.”

It is when Mrs Parsons pays her weekly housecleaning visit, “to do the rough,” that we get a finest picture of Frances.

So intent was she on being a normal elderly woman, so much trouble did she take, that she would always rather be praised for her crab-apple jelly than her painting, for the first was a marvel to her, the other natural to her and inevitable. Detesting the artists she had met and the milieu in which they usually worked she painted at set hours and did the washing-up first, remembering always Flaubert’s advice to artists — “Be regular and ordinary in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you can be violent and original in your works.” She would have been distressed beyond measure and bewildered if she had known how extraordinary the villagers thought her, or how Mrs Parsons on Saturday nights at the pub, spoke of her as “my poor dear lady,” pitying her, or told stories of her little mad kindnesses, her presents of money, of dried herbs, of cowslip wine, of jars of honey, of advice: how she had searched the snowy fields one winter’s night, hearing a rabbit crying in a trap, and had given her dinner to the dog when she was short of meat and eaten bread and marmalade herself. These actions, so natural to Frances that she would never have believed that ordinary people would behave otherwise, were enough to set the stories circulating, but she remained quite ignorant of them, and when Mrs Parsons took her arm, she thought it a gesture of simple kindness, not protection.

A Wreath of Roses reads more like Ivy Compton Burnett than any other Taylor novel that I’ve encountered (and this was my seventh out of the twelve); the dialogue is studded with deadpan retorts in which the elements of an initial comment are rearranged to in the form of an objection. The novel is also a tribute of sorts to To the Lighthouse; Frances and her admirer, Morland Beddoes, share wise and wry observations, never as bitter as Lily Briscoe’s but just as detached from the narrative current. (Well, they are the narrative current.) And with the fugitive Richard Elton, Taylor palpates the madness of Septimus Smith.


Things are said to come in threes, but I’ll be very happy to stop at two. First, one of the alabaster lamps in the living room seemed to have fused during the night, and then a glass canister slipped from its perch on a plastic one and shattered on the kitchen floor. I believe that it contained powdered milk, used for baking bread — yet another of those special ingredients that fill the mouthwatering pages of the King Arthur catalogue. I haven’t baked bread in a while; I quite lost the rhythm last summer, not only because of the month on Fire Island but because Will stopped being able to sit through dinner. Sweeping up the shards along with the powder, I saw that I must let go of another useless notion, which is that a kitchen ought to be well-stocked with staples. Although I’ve cut back greatly on the number of canisters and other storage containers, I still have too many.

The leftover tenderloin (which wasn’t as expensive as I thought it would be; I saw the bill when I upacked the calf’s liver for last night’s dinner) makes the most delicious sandwiches, sliced very thin and spiked with a bit of Wisconsin Buttermilk Blue, which is the cheese that I used in Friday’s night’s salad (not Roquefort), tucked into a toasted English muffin. Indeed, I think that I’ll go have one now.


What’s better than a two-bedroom apartment in a classic prewar building on Riverside Drive? Two apartments. one atop the other. And not only that, but one just below the treetop line and one just above it. At this time of year, the lower floor gives out onto a Parisian scene; the Bois de Boulogne might be stretching beyond the foliage. The view from the higher flat stares straight into the Hudson and out over the Palisades. Our friends have had the downstairs apartment for years; the death of an owner directly overhead made expansion possible. Divulging further, even more remarkable features would be an invasion of privacy, but, frankly, the view is all you need to think about.  

Later, at Nice-Matin, having dinner with a friend who’s in town from London, we looked out and wondered if someone was making a movie. It was raining that hard. But we managed to get home without getting too wet.

Weekend Note:
The Royalty Rule
14-15 April 2012

Saturday, April 14th, 2012


Although I read everything but the first section after breakfast, I don’t remember a single thing from today’s Times. Jean Zimmerman’s chapter about the art world of 1890s Manhattan, centered on the still-unpaved 57th Street, drove the faits divers right out of my head.  

As I tidy the apartment this afternoon, I’m listening to a recording of Il Trovatore that I’ve owned for ages but never listened to, the one conducted by Sir Colin Davis, with Katia Ricciarelli and José Carreras. And an unknown voice: Stefania Toczyska. I must ask Fossil Darling about her.

After Il Trovatore, I turned to Rigoletto, and a recording that I know very well (Solti, Moffo, Kraus, Merrill). It came to an end a few minutes after I put away the dusters. I really really must get serious about reading Peter Conrad’s Verdi/Wagner. The problem is that, as the biggest book in the pile, it stays at the bottom.


Charles McGrath’s piece about Robert Caro, in this weekend’s Times Magazine, had me thinking more about books. The piece’s title aptly describes Caro as a dinosaur; it’s impossible to regard him as anything but the last of a kind. The last of the run of historians who worked without making use of the Internet, for one thing. The last to use a typewriter — that sort of thing. But he’s the last of a kind in a different way, which I think McGrath pinpoints here:

Caro thought that the 1948 Senate election would take up a single chapter or so in his Senate volume. Instead, it takes up most of a book of its own, what is now Volume 2. Johnson advocates used to say that “no one will ever know” whether that election was stolen. Caro knows, because he uncovered a handwritten memoir by Luis Salas, an election boss and party henchman, giving the details of how he falsified the records. The Senate book, Volume 3, begins with a 100-page history of the Senate, starting with Calhoun and Webster, because Caro felt that to understand the Senate you needed to see it in its great period. It includes minibiographies of Hubert Humphrey and Richard Russell Jr., the longtime Senate leader of the South, and ends with a detailed, almost vote-by-vote account of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The first few weeks of the Johnson presidency, which take up so much of the new book, were originally imagined as just a chapter in what would be the final volume, and the new book also includes much more about the Kennedys than Caro anticipated.

Future historians will probably refer readers to someone else’s 100-page history of the Senate; failing that, the historian’s account will be published as a separate work. McGrath notes that 350,000 words were cut from the original manuscript of The Power Broker, and I hope that a complete edition of Caro’s text will be published eventually. I’d love to read the notoriously omitted chapter about Jane Jacobs’s run-ins with Robert Moses, for one thing; for another, completeness would heal the hacked disarray of the later chapters, which clearly announce a compromising determination to get out the bad news about world’s fairs and the even worse news about urban renewal. Caro has already done the work; it needs only to be printed. But would anyone do such work in the age of the Internet? I don’t want to sound naively optimistic about the Web’s encouragement of collaboration, but I do envision a gradually coalescing group project in which grand narratives are parceled out to hosts of writers, each of whom knows his adjacent fields almost as well as his own. I’m not talking about a single grand unified history of everything; there can never, thank goodness, be any such thing. A galaxy of histories would be more like it. Or perhaps the genome is a better model.

McGrath notes that Caro thinks about writing a biography of Alfred E Smith, the New York Governor who ran for President against Hoover and Roosevelt (the latter at the Democratic Convention of 1932), and who was Moses’s ultimate protector. (After Smith, Moses no longer needed protection.) What can he be thinking? There’s more than enough about Smith tucked into The Power Broker. It would be writing the same book twice. 


I compiled a new playlist yesterday. Becaue Kathleen often leaves for work after I’ve launched one of the “Bach in Order Playlists, and returned before it ends twelve hours later, she is very familiar with the first and last of Corelli’s Concerti Grossi, Opus 6, but the ten works in between are all but unknown to her. So I thought I’d build yet another list on the set, but this time without any Bach. (Almost; I snuck in my favorite orchestral suite, the fourth.) Designed for weekend use, the list includes agreeable, accessible classics, such as Dvorak’s Symphonic Variations and Rachmaninov’s Second Suite for Two Pianos. So far, it has been very pleasant to listen to, but periodically jarring for me, as I am deeply conditioned to hearing the Corelli embedded in acres of keyboard works by Bach.


Late this afternoon, Kathleen and I went to see The Artist, which finally came uptown a few weeks ago — no nearer than 67th Street, but near enough. Kathleen loved it, too. What really interests me is that we both saw it in the same way, naively. We were both gripped by the story of George Valentin’s fall from stardom. That’s not how I saw The Artist the first time, and Kathleen claims that she saw it that way because she’d heard so much about the film that it wasn’t really a first time. We both looked through all the novelties and the references and the amazing artifice. We took note of all that, to talk about afterward, but while the reels were spinning, so to speak, we were watching it as if we’d never seen a movie before. And I think that that is what is great about The Artist: it is not so much a valentine to the movies as a reminder of how to watch a movie. Richard Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio, debates the question, which comes first in opera, the music or the words? (The music, of course!) The Artist asserts that movies are to be watched first and listened to second. How many magnificent moments in talkies don’t involve dialogue! Music and dance, yes, but talking, not so much. I say this despite a religious devotion to the screwball comedies that seem to depend on their crackerjack dialogue to succeed. They don’t, of course; screwballs are always ballets for two actors, dances for wrongheaded lovers. The dialogue ought to be regarded as a part of the original score, written in the clef of Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, and Irene Dunne.

The one thing that hit me just as hard the second time is that Jean Dujardin turns the wearing of clothes into an action. He wears clothes the way Steve McQueen shoots a gun or Sean Connery outfoxes a villain. It’s not an erotic thing; you don’t imagine Jean Dujardin’s body beneath the three-piece suits. But you are aware of a man in the act of wearing — carrying, as the Germans say — three-piece suits. Women do this all the time, but never men. Fred Astaire and Cary Grant don’t wear clothes so much as inhabit them as a species of skin. (When Cary Grant takes off his suit — his one and only outfit — in North by Northwest, it’s almost a kind of disguse, because the real Cary Grant is unimaginable without jacket and trousers. Consider that feathery bathrobe in Bringing Up Baby.)

The first time I saw The Artist, I’d never seen Jean Dujardin before. Now I’ve seen quite a lot, including several movies that I didn’t really understand because they didn’t even have close-captioning to help me follow the French dialogue (Brice de Nice, hilarious even if I didn’t understand everything, or perhaps for that reason). I’ve watched Jean Dujardin win the Oscar for Best Actor and The Artist win Best Picture. Seeing The Artist a second time, I can only thrill to the rightness of everything — not just the awards, but the way in which The Artist disciplines Dujardin’s loose-cannon talent and makes a real man out of him, something that doesn’t seem to have happened in any of the (other) French films that I’ve seen him in. All round, The Artist is a serious work of art, and I was awed by it the second time, not just impressed.


After the movie, we walked over to Madison and up to Frank Campbell. The mother of a very old friend of Kathleen’s died the other day, at 92 going on 93, and we arrived at the wake shortly after a large contingent of other old friends of the bereaved had departed — we ran into some of them in the street. The departed lay in an open coffin, so amazingly lifelike that we all expected her to sit up and tell us a racy anecdote — or at least to bid no trump. I couldn’t think what to say, but I had a brainwave: I fell back on the royalty rule. If there was silence, I was fine with it; it was not up to me to decide what to talk about. So I introduced no topics. I said nothing of Jean Zimmerman’s Love, Fiercely, even though the sadness of that book’s final chapters was much on my mind. I didn’t mention Bad News, the Melrose novel by Edward St Aubyn that takes place, in part, at the funeral home where we were sitting (under the name, as I recall, of “Frank McDonald,” moved, for some absolutely inscrutable reason, up a block on Madison to 82nd). Nor did I mention how I collapsed when, for verification purposes only, the lid of my mother’s casket was raised before her wake (she had been ravaged by primitive chemotherapy), or how I almost suffocated on my own sobs, in a torrrent that swept through me like a tornado but left everything undamaged. I understood, in some deep but initial way, that it was not up to me to keep the flow of conversation going. What it was up to me to do was to stand next to Kathleen and join in the spirit of the moment, which was certainly not jovial but also, strangely, not sad. What am I saying. It was terribly, awfully sad. But we were all behaving ourselves, so the sadness was effaced.

The royalty rule is a great idea.

Weekend Note:
Easter &c
6 – 9 April 2012

Friday, April 6th, 2012


My grandson was very happy to interrupt a conversation that I was having with his mother this morning, but he didn’t see the need to say anything once he took possession of the telephone. “So,” I suggested, “Do you want me to do all the talking?” “YES!” he barked. We’ll see how long that lasts. Ray Soleil has taken to doing me a great favor: getting me used to being addressed as “Old man.” For the moment, Will still calls me Dadoo.


Last evening, I watched The Prince and the Showgirl, and then My Week With Marilyn, the recent movie about the making of The Prince and the Showgirl. I was keen to take the fullest possible measure of the two impersonations. The earlier movie, which I had somehow never seen, was surprisingly more pleasant than I expected it to be, and never have I seen Monroe look more gloriously yet at the same time simply beautiful.

In fact there are three impersonations, and let me say right away that it was much more agreeable to understand what Judi Dench was saying (in her role as the dowager queen of Carpathia) than to struggle with Sybil Thorndike’s strange accent. When she spoke French, she was far more comprehensible.

As for the principals, I had thought, after seeing My Week With Marilyn in the theatre, that Kenneth Branagh did a stupendous job of impersonating Laurence Olivier, but I came away from The Prince and the Showgirl convinced that it was Olivier who impersonated Branagh, avant la lettre as I put it the other day. My judgment of Michelle Williams stands: she shows up Marilyn Monroe. Williams is a great actress, disiciplined down to the slightest frisson. Marilyn Monroe was, or behaved like, a model and a celebrity who could not be troubled to do the hard work of acting. She knew that she didn’t have to, really, in order to be a star, but I expect that she would have had a happier life if she had not felt privileged to lay back.

And Michelle Williams is genuinely sexy. When she leaned in to kiss Eddie Redmayne — well, I thought what it means to be happily married. In the end, Williams can’t do a really credible Monroe because what she really can’t do — what would have been so much more obvious if Monroe hadn’t dyed her hair — is Betty Boop. But she’s so personally gorgeous that, instead of impersonating Marilyn Monroe, she redeems her.


I wonder why I am always tired, but then I consider: I am always busy. Unless I am reading, I am working at something. Set aside my activities here, and there’s t of housekeeping tasks, which arrange themselves in two companies. The first is the roster of everyday jobs, such as washing the dishes and making the bed, and the regular jobs that recur at greater intervals, such as arranging for the laundry and changing the sheets on the bed. I try to shop for food every day; it’s still more accurate to say, alas, that I try never to shop for tomorrow or the next day. The unthinking rhythm with which these obligations can be dispatched goes a long way to determining the day’s happiness.

Then there is the other company, comprised of strangers as it were, projects that arise no more often than once a year, or perhaps only once and for all. Library management probably oughtn’t to fall into this company, but it does seem to; instead of being managed by a steady, conscientious librarian, my collection of books is in the hands of a series of ferocious Turkish sultans who, once they have taken over and reorganized everything, give the bookshelves no further attention, until at long last their negligence leads to insupportable conditions and a new coup is compassed. Then there are the projects that, in one’s twenties, one thinks of as “getting organized”; in one’s sixties (or later), they reek so strongly of mortality that they are virtual amulets that ward off death. As long as you are diligently preparing to “leave your affairs in order,” your life will be spared. Or so you feel, even if you see right through it.

The two companies dance in a complicated round, following steps that it takes, or at least has taken me, many years to learn. Almost every day, I suffer a moment of regret: why is it all coming into place now? That is one. The other is this, felt almost as a child feels it: now it is time to go to bed.


Yesterday — in the evening mostly — I read Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel, Blaming. I read it almost whole, almost all of it — all but ten or so pages — in the one day. It’s true that it’s not very long. It has something of the power of a great novella, such as The Heart of Darkness. This, one can hardly pretend not to think, must owe something to the fact that Taylor knew that she was dying (of cancer) as she worked on the book, and especially as she prepared it for publication. There are two deaths in the novel; one happens almost immediately, just far enough into the book to be perfectly shocking. The art with which Taylor averts your attention from its impending is immediately gratifying. The other occurs near the end, after the story threatens to have petered out. This second death is not shocking at all, but it creates a puzzlement that perhaps troubles the reader more than the characters. One closes the book in a storm of aesthetic and moral uncertainty. This, too, is brought off with great artistry.

And yet Blaming is often as funny as anything, especially where children are concerned. But I find that there is almost nothing that I can say of Blaming that isn’t in the nature of a spoiler. I shall have to write about it elsewhere. For the moment, I’ll simply point out that I’m glad that it was the fifth Taylor novel that I read, and not the first or the second. Just as one would not want to read Persuasion before Pride and Prejudice. (And I think that Persuasion is a very great novel, perhaps Austen’s finest; but there are those who do not.) If had to pick two out of the five titles, I’d say that the other indispensible one, and the one to read first, would be The View of the Harbour, which I read last. But they’re all marvelous. I’ve heard Angel referred to as Taylor’s masterpiece, but it is in effect a sport, a recreation, quite unlike the other books that I’ve read. But this kind of list-making, which I’m clearly indulging because I can’t write about Blaming, is foolish. It’s time to get breakfast.


A scene of what felt like maximal disorder: all the dishes from yesterday’s dinner, and all the window areas in disarray — the handyman came this morning, as scheduled, to change the HVAC filters. I should have liked nothing better than to spend the day in bed, finishing up various books, but, no, that was definitely not to be. As of this writing, the rooms have been restored and the second of three dishwasher loads is running. I’ve washed the wine glasses, but not the water glasses. My moving parts are moving very slowly.

It was a day worthy of all the preparation and cleanup.

Here’s how I roasted the ham: I cored a pineapple and lay rings along the bottom of the roasting pan. Then I sat the cut edge of the ham atop the rings and poured maple syrup all over the rind. I put the pan in a slow oven and basted the ham every twenty minutes. I’m not sure what, if anything, this procedure contributed to the flavor, but it was the best-tasting ham that I’ve ever had, with a tenderness that I can only call bready. (As in very good bread.)

We had a salmon mousse to start with, alongside a “beet and scallion appetizer” from the original New York Times Cook Book that turned out to be beet borscht without the broth and minus the puréeing. Then a mushroom bouillon that was wrecked, I think, by the port wine reduction that went in at the last minute. The ham came with riced sweet potatoes and steamed asparagus. For dessert, a perfect angel-food cake, with a raspberry coulis.


While attending to the HVAC filter in the living room, the handyman inadvertently dsiconnected the cable connected the iPod dock to the stereo amplifier. Huge electronic farts filled the air until they unaccountably stopped. I turned on the Nano that happened to be the dock, but could hear nothing; I made a mental note to begin find the disconnection before moving furniture back into place.

I forgot that I’d turned on the Nano, though, and was very surprised to hear the beginning of the long last movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. It wasn’t what I’d have chosen to listen to at that particular moment, but I was happy to go along with it. Then, suddenly, inbstead of diving into one of those chasms that precedes the glorious finale, the symphony gave way to the piano introduction to one of Rossini’s droller songs. Nobody expects the iPod shuffle! When I was done with everything that I absolutely had to do, and could sit down for a minute with a cup of tea, I went to the playlist that includes the Resurrection and went back to where I ought to have been.

I was reading Adam Gopnik on Albert Camus, in The New Yorker, and very absorbed by the essay. But not so absorbed that I didn’t have to put it down for last few dozen bars of Mahler.

Weekend Note:
Longer Weekends
30-31 March. 1 April 2012

Friday, March 30th, 2012


From now on, at least at this site, the weekend begins on Friday. What’s become clear in the past few months is that my schedule falls into two blocs: Monday-Thursday alone and Friday-Sunday in company. I’ve got to dash off right now, in fact, to have lunch with Ray Soleil, after which we’ll drop in at the Museum. I’ll be heading downtown this evening as usual, to see what my grandson is up to. It’s in the interest of mental health that I stop regarding Friday as one the alone days.

Not that I wouldn’t love one, just to spend it reading. The Righteous Mind is incredibly exciting — I have to put it down from time to time, just to swallow its mounting import — and Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour has just taken an unexpected turn. More anon.


Goodness. Just realized that I posted this entry at The Daily Blague but not here. It’s just past six, and I’m packed and ready to head downtown. I’ve had an hour or two to get my strength back after an unexpectedly strenuous tour of the Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — that’s where the Museum keeps its “modern art.” I wanted to see the Clyfford Stills.

There’s an entire room of them, with I forgot to count how many large paintings, making Still something of a unique presence; if comparable at all, it can only be to the Msueum’s collection generous helping of Vermeers (a full seventh of that painter’s output). Of all the Abstract Expressionists, Still is my favorite because he’s such a painter. Let me qualify that: his images are the work of someone who painted with a brush in his hands. I don’t dislike Jackson Pollock; the proof of his mastery is that no one has ever been able to copy or even to adapt his visceral, iconic style. But I prefer the things that Still does, the shapes that emerge on both the large and the small scale. And I like to think what it would be like to live with one of them. I’m not sure that I’d want that.

At the moment, there’s also a nice little show, “XS,” of nice little paintings. There’s a quite beautiful Miró that I don’t recall having seen before. Outside the Galleries on the main floor is a fine collection of John Marin’s watercolors, arranged chronologically and growing ever more abstract. Because of his name, stupidly, I always think of Marin as a California artist. The subjects of the watercolors are all Northeastern, many from Maine.

I also love the Stuart Davises. But where are the Averys? Presumably they’re still on trustees’ walls. And why aren’t there a few Morandis? Doubtful: A Guy Pène du Bois revival. Also: I still don’t get Jasper Johns. He may work with paint but he is no artist in my book. A thinker, maybe. A symbolist. But not an artist.


It’s a dark day, suitable for mulling over the darker implications, apparent only to me, perhaps, of the third part of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I’m preoccupied by what he calls “the hive switch,” a transformation of egotistical individuals into a selfless unit — more precisely, a unit with only one self. I don’t doubt that his proposition is sound, but he seems to be unaware that this switch is activated in men far more often than it is in women. And of course I’m aware that it has never, to the best of my knowledge, been activated in me.

More about all of that later, when I’ve actually finished The Righteous Mind. At the moment, I’m considering Meg Wolitzer’s esaay, “The Second Shelf,” in this week’s Book Review. Wolitzer takes up the the VIDA Count, announced last month, showing that men dominate the literary scene is measured by book reviews (both as reviewers and reviewees, men take up more than two-thirds of the space). The essay poses many good questions, but offers little in the way of enlightenment, beyond the easy observation that simply to classify a work of fiction as “women’s” is problematic. What makes this strange is that men don’t read fiction, not nearly as much as women do.

I blame the academy. That’s where most men learn about literature and where their tastes are formed, for the most part by male professors. Most men go on after graduation to pursue non-literary careers, carrying with them the memory of books that they loved discovering as undergraduates but not venturing to keep up with newer trends as they develop. Most educated men who read regularly at all seem to prefer history to fiction, and military history to the arguably more important political or social studies.

The few men who do go into publishing or who become writers or literature professors appear to do a great deal of chest-thumping on behalf of the stars of their sex. Here’s a dirty little secret about “men’s fiction”: it’s event-centered. Lots of noise surrounds the publication of certain authors’ new novels — shock waves of advance buzz, in the case of a book such as Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. One might almost say that a “hive switch” occurs whenever Michael Chabon or Jeffrey Eugenides comes out with new product: what I can only call universal hailure ensures. But what happens to these books over time?

Looking back, I see a canon of fiction that is more evenly divided between men and women. Take England in the Nineteenth Century: Austen, Dickens, Trollope and Eliot are the indisputables, and if you had to kick one of them off the island, it would be Trollope. In Twentieth-Century American fiction, Wharton seems to stand alone alongside Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner, but Powell and McCarthy stand unaccompanied by underread men who are gaining in acclaim. With the passage of time, British fiction of the same century appears to be dominated by a coterie of women, ranging from Ivy Compton-Burnett to Penelope Fitzgerald, who showed an eagerness to make use of whatever modernist tricks appealed to them, without concerning themselves at all with modernist theory. (The leading men, interestingly, seem to have been not only disproportionately homosexual but even less interested in modernism.)

What literature needs is a course for high school teachers entitled “Making Boys Laugh with Jane Austen.” Or at least to laugh when she smiles. I don’t know of a richer literary pleasure.  


Song for (about) my grandson:

Do-wah, do-wah, do-wah Kitty,
Tell us about the boy from New York City.

So fi-yi-yine. Da-doo.


I’ve finished The Righteous Mind, I’m sorry to say. Sorry because, now, I have to go back to Turing’s Cathedral. I plodded through a chapter entitled “Monte Carlo” that had only the slimmest connection to the principality and its casino; mercifully, the word “stochastic” didn’t pop up until I consulted Wikipedia. I wish I wanted to know more about numbers, but they’re empty to me. I’d rather wash a stack of dishes than add a stack of figures. I find mathemathical concepts intriguing to the extent that numbers are excluded, as in geometry. I like my π just the way it is, unsolved.

The number of inconvenient truths that tumble out of The Righteous Mind — such as the attribution of the nation’s political polarization to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — ought to generate a bit of nasty hum, but I’m grateful to have things out in the open. I’m delighted that Jonathan Haidt has explained, in terms that insult no one but do imply a strong case for the pervasiveness of arrogance amonst liberals, why conservative politicians fare better at election time. (They have much more to offer symbolically, and they promise to make fewer changes.) At the same time, I hope that the formerly liberal author doesn’t get too catnipped by his new ideas.

When I read, in Turing’s Cathedral, about the power of the first Soviet thermonuclear device, way back in 1961 (roughly equivalent to one percent of the sun’s output), I shuddered as if in the presence of the divine. Never mind the “as if.” We know almost nothing about how we got here, but we have somehow acquired the power to extinguish ourselves — and who would care? I find that the absence of a deity, of a known deity I should say, intensifies my sense of the sacredness of the mission, as it is clearly going to have to be, of human beings on earth. And when I consider the new world that is unfurling under the banner of the Cognitive Revolution, I feel — forget the “as if” — that we’ve just landed.


I was nowhere near sixteen going on seventeen when I saw The Sound of Music.  The one and only time, on Broadway. I’ve never seen the movie, and, at this point, I have a minor investment in keeping it that way. I wouldn’t see it the first time, so I’ll never see it. By “first time,” I mean the New York premiere, at the Rivoli Theatre, where you had reserved seats to see movies (in those days), and to which my parents were invited because my father had just joined the board of directors of Twentieth Century-Fox. (How nice: I got the hyphen right.) I ought to write to Matthew Weiner and offer up my experience, which would make a perfect Mad Men moment of adolescent insubordination.

I refused to go to this grand event, which, somewhere in my developing brain, I knew would involve kitsch of the blackest pitch. Fossil Darling has the documentary evidence: I sat down and wrote a soul-searing letter about how beastly my mother, whom I christened “Boris” that night (he still calls her that), was about my ick-factor reaction to the prospect of climbing every mountain. (You can’t blame her, but of course I did.) I was way past sixteen by this time, but that’s how long it used to take to make a movie out of a Broadway hit — and to dump Mary Martin (who was, it’s true, a real stretch as the virginal Maria) for Julie Andrews (who, remember, hadn’t been given either of her Broadway roles, Eliza Doolittle or Queen Guinevere). I take it that the clip that outro’ed this evening’s episode of Mad Men came from the film. I wouldn’t know.