Archive for the ‘Weekend’ Category

Weekend Note:
Taylor Time
24-25 March 2012

Saturday, March 24th, 2012


This afternoon and evening, a double-bill of Paul Taylor programs; six ballets in one day. Four of which we have seen before, one of which is having its first New York season.

As a result: an irregular weekend. No housekeeping today! I might have gotten up early, &c, but we did not get up early, and when I was finished with the Times I plowed right back into Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor’s penultimate novel. We know the story, or the part of the story that surived adaptation, from the film of the same name, with Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend. The book, as you might imagine, is darker, less whimsical. Well, it has more to say about getting old, for one thing; and, for another, the young man in the case, Ludovic Myer, is bound to appear more attractive if you’re not privy to his thoughts.

Last night, we watched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which has just come out on DVD. Now that I didn’t have to try to follow the story, as I did in the theatre, finding the entire subject of Cold War espionage both tedious and regrettable, I could focus on how well-made the film is. Gary Oldman is very good.

What stuck in my mind afterward was the “aesthetic” argument for supporting the Soviets that is advanced by the traitor at the end. It was an argument launched by actual defectors in the Fifties — the West was decadent, &c; the future belonged to socialism, &c. Talking through my hat, connecting bits and pieces of possibly erroneous memory, I would say that, on the whole, the men making this argument came from Tory backgrounds, which was why the “aesthetic” frame was so much more appealing than a political one would have been. What the defectors shared with many conservative but loyal Britons was a visceral loathing for the Americans.

I thought of all the reasons for this loathing, and that kept me busy for quite a while. The only one that I want to mention now is the matter of language, which, as I get older, I see with sympathy for the English. Their language is not spoken in my country — not widely. What almost all Americans, even educated ones, who can do better on occasion, speak, for daily currency, is a dialect of Low German that I would call the International Language of High School. It must be unbearably grating to hear familiar words tumble out in foreign expressions, mispronounced and strung together without rhythm or art. I feel lucky not to be English myself for just this reason.


This season, our fourth, we saw nine ballets (eight different ones) by Paul Taylor, and we’re not as mystified by the immense pleasure of watching his dances as we used to be. For one thing, we understand the dancing much better than we did. We have learned to expect a seamlessness in the choreography, an endless onrollong of connections and disconnections that has neither beginning nor, for the most part, end. We are familiar with Taylor’s vocabulary of classical adaptation — he seems to call for every classical move except, pointedly, dancing on point — and Broadway roughhouse. We know that, as Alistair Macaulay put it in the Times, Taylor “never just follows a score; he seems to keep resisting it.”

We also know the dancers. We recognize them immediately. This is another curious aspect of Taylor’s choreography: he calls for the kind of coordination among his dancers that we associate with the classical corps de ballet, but what he does not call for is the submersion of individual identity that goes with it. His dancers are rather heterogeneous, physically — tall, short, stocky, lithe — and their virtues as dancers differ, too. Michael Trusnovec, the senior member of the company and its polestar (Mr Trusnovec is also the company’s assistant dancing master), exhibits, paradoxically, the self-containment of enormous power, and he never appears to make so much as an extraneous blink of the eyes. But for passion and longing, I look to James Samson, who is not the virtuoso that Mr Trusnovec is but who embodies a grave drramatic agony at rest that never fails to become urgent whenever he moves. Robert Kleinendorst would be the jock of the troupe if he had only half of his brain; it takes a certain genius to foreground the athletic rigor of what’s going on onstage without sacrificing the aesthetic. Without making the dancing look effortful, he makes it look hard, and yet at the same time ecstatic: What a life, his body seems to be crying, to spend it running and jumping about the stage in front of all these lovely people! And then there is Michael Novak, the new kid on the block. He reminds me that, when we started going to Paul Taylor dances, Laura Halzack was the new kid on the block, and look what’s become of her!


We are still a bit under the weather overall. My eye hasn’t entirely cleared up, so that risking re-infecting Will (if indeed he’s the source) would be a possibility were we to spend time together. As for Kathleen, she had a very big week career-wise, joining an important advisory council to fill a seat that was created for her; a day of training was followed by a dinner and then, on the morrow, a board meeting: two days on a very steep learning curve (although the oddest part of it all, Kathleen says, was being to consider issues without respect to an actual client’s needs). I won’t bore you with the job description; if you’ve any real interest in the field, you’ll have other ways of finding out about it. The upshot is that we’re home today, all day. It’s not a nice day for going on; I’ve actually got the heat on in the bedroom. I will probably take care of the housekeeping that yesterday’s treats precluded.

Just before breakfast, I finished reading Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, and immediately picked up A Game of Hide and Seek, also by Elizabeth Taylor. I expect that it’s going to be the saddest of the four novels that I’ll have read when I’m finished. I rather wish that I had picked up A View of the Harbor or Taylor’s last novel, Blaming, instead, but I’ll get to them soon enough. So far, I haven’t any sense of anything acute that distinguishes Taylor from other novelists; she’s hardly alone in writing clean, modest, mildly ironic prose, but I do sense, perhaps because I’ve grown up a bit myself, the presence of the animal behind the English manner of her characters. I wrote “beneath” at first, but that’s exactly wrong; this is not a matter of deeper, “lower” natures. What I mean is that Taylor creates human beings who know, unlike all other creatures, that they are going to die.

Weekend Note:
18 March 2012

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

It has been a long time since I last saw the St Patrick’s Day experience up close, and I hope that it will be a very long time before I see it again. Given the mild winter that we’ve had, and the pleasant weather this weekend, it’s easy to see the sprawl of funseekers attired in unattractive green outfits as a rite of spring, an utterly charmless version of Mardi Gras staged in Manhattan by young people from elsewhere. Let this entry be a plea to Gotham’s hipsters: please, we beg of you, impose some discipline on this yesty letting-go.


At some point in early middle age, I gave up expecting film adaptations to capture whatever it was about books that I’d really liked, and life got a lot easier. I might still hate a movie, but I didn’t take its botched representations as an insult to the novel that allegedly inspired it. Novels and films have nothing in common; they travel on parallel trajectories that will never intersect. A book that yields readily to cinematic adaptation is less likely to be a novel than a scenario. The true virtue of fiction — the writing — cannot be translated into imagery at all. Once you accept this rule, there is more pleasure to be had.

François Ozon’s Angel is an example of how going wrong can work out right. I gather that this deeply unfaithful adaption of Elizabeth Taylor’s 1957 novel was not received, in Britain, anyway, with unalloyed rapture, and to the best of my knowledge an American release was never undertaken. One IMDb commenter remarked, “It’s hard to know what attracted Ozon to Elizabeth Taylor’s fantastic source novel as his adaptation is misjudged on a number of levels. … He doesn’t seem able to master Taylor’s irony at all.” Certainly there is nothing ironic about Ozon’s presentation of his heroine. I’m not quite sure how literary irony works in the movies, but I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to sit through a feature-length attempt to capture the peculiarities of Taylor‘s heroine.

Angel Deverell is the writer of popular novels that, by any literary measure, are simply awful. Angel, although possessed of a large vocabulary, is not a reader. She writes not in communion with writers who have gone before her but in straightforward regurgitation of her own longings, which, for a time, harmonize with those of the market for escapist fantasy. Nor does Angel write because she is obliged to by the mysterious inner necessity to which almost every literary novelist attributes the stamina required to create a novel. Angel’s objective is to get rich, to escape her humble origins. She peddles her fancies in order to afford to bring her own actual life into line with them. She buys the great house in which her aunt was a lady’s maid, not because she likes the place or dreamed of living in it (she seems not to have known where it was, much less what it looked like), but in order to close a psychological circuit by becoming, as chatelaine of Paradise House, the grand dame who once condescended to invite her to visit as a member of the servant class. When, for the first time, she runs into a man whose attractions she can’t put out of her mind, she buys him as well. She goes on buying things long after her popularity recedes, and at the end she dies in shabby gentility, under equally irresponsible circumstances: Angel has always refused to see a doctor. Doctors and accountants have no place in the dream-world that she seeks to make real.

Watching a movie about such foolishness would be extremely confusing. One the one hand, Angel is a narcissist — the opposite of sympathetic. Taylor says so, almost in passing. At the same time, however, Angel is only a narcissist; she is not a monster. There is something almost winning about her lack of intelligent calculation, her protracted immaturity. And she regards herself as a success right up to the end. She has set out to achieve fame, fortune, and love, and the achievement itself is proof against reversal.

Ozon’s Angel does not die anywhere near so happily. In a drastic contraction of a long and rather funny scene in the novel, the movie Angel discovers that her husband was in love with another woman, and not just any other woman, but the very daughter of Paradise House after whom she herself was named. Carelessly stepping out into the snow in search of a favorite kitten — one thinks of those dranged bel canto heroines in their mad scenes — Angel contracts pneumonia and dies, just like that. The End! Compared to the richness of Taylor’s exordium, Ozon’s is simply terrible.

Or it would be if Ozon didn’t know exactly what he is up to, and we weren’t clever enough to see it. He has given us The Real Life of Angel Deverell as Angel Deverell would have written it. He has taken Taylor’s novel and subjected it to a complete overhaul at the hands of its principal character. Enough of the novel is preserved to show that Angel is seen by many people to be ridiculous, but it is not an impression shared by the movie. In the movie, Angel is bigger than life, someone who lives the dream. And she does so in the most extraordinary costumes!

Taylor’s Angel is not plain or ill-favored, but there is something pinched about her physiognomy that spoils any claim to beauty. As if aware of this, Angel devotes a great deal of time to mooning over the smooth white skins of her hands, which she is forever arranging artfully. There is none of this in the movie. Why should there be? Angel is played by a real beauty, Romola Garai. Ms Garai is, I must say, extraordinary; she completely captures Angel’s conviction that, having paid the bills, she can’t be expected to do anything further. Angel never tries to be charming, and the actress doesn’t, either. Instead, she enables the director to substitute for the verbal irony of Taylor’s text the psychological irony that’s betrayed by the conviction shared by so many people of subpar intelligence, that they are unusually gifted.

Heaven only knows what viewers who haven’t read the novel make of Angel. The film is complicated somewhat by the filmmaker’s interest in a certain kind of excess, a visual celebration of colorful bad taste that runs like a thread through his work, from Sitcom and Huit Femmes right up to Potiche. What if Douglas Sirk had been a party animal? Something very like François Ozon would be the result. Without the anchor of Taylor’s novel, and what we know about the imagination of Taylor’s Angel, the movie might seem to be accidentally cartoonish and underdeveloped. In fact, there is no accident.

Weekend Note:
10 March 2012

Saturday, March 10th, 2012


This weekend, I shall try to do a better job of jotting down the odd note. So much happened last week (even if very little of it merits writing about) that I don’t have a sense of the beginning of endings of things; impressions swirl through my mind like the salmon in Lasse Hallström’s new movie. (I keep hearing Ewan McGregor say to Tom Mison, “No, I love her.”)

Last night, at Herbie Hancock’s Rose Theatre concert, I let my mind drift a bit every now and then, and here is one of the things that it bumped into, a formulation that I believe is rather neat while at the same time fearing that it may be trite. It is a general Rule for the Literate. Speak as carefully as you write, and write as naturally as you speak. Have I poached this, or did I think it up myself? It has an odd vibe when I mull it over, as though it were something that I used to say all the time.

As long as we’re on the subject of aphorisms, here’s something that occurred to me a few weeks ago; I jotted it down but did not mention whatever it was that gave rise to the idea, which must have been to obvious to mention at the time. I was thinking through the relationship between the Enlightenment and Modernism, and it occurred to me that Modernism is a late flare of the Enlightenment that sought not enlightenment but transfiguration. It occurs to me now that the much same can be said of Romanticism. The Modernists, however, were determined to avoid Romanticism’s solipsism and general lack of rigor. What we learned from the consequences of their experiment was the horror of rigorously suppressing individual distinctions.

Chou En-Lai is still right: it’s too soon to talk about the consequences of the French Revolution as if we knew what they were.


At the end of the afternoon, I had to sit down, and I happened to sit down next to two piles of old photographs that had turned up in the course of a long chain of minuscule reorganizations; it would be better to say that the photographs had been turned out. Their hidey-hole was no more. It was time to cull.

I went through about half of the prints, of which there were about a hundred, perhaps more. Perhaps two hundred. Almost all of them were taken around 9/11. The clearest indicator was the series of shots that Kathleen took from her last office, when she was working at 2 Wall Street. The remains of the South Tower had not been cleared away, and a corner joint of two façades rose up to a point about ten stories tall. Other photographs in the pile showed Singapore and Amsterdam, which Kathleen traveled to about a month later. There are photographs of Chicago and London, and of a trip that Kathleen made with an old friend to Eton and Oxford — I think. Horseshoe Beach in Bermuda is represented, along with the lantern of Bermuda Cathedral. There are quite a few pictures of the kitchen, taken during a re-painting; I can’t think why anyone would want to look at those. I can’t think, once I start thinking, why anyone would want to see any of these photographs, aside from the 9/11 ones. That’s why I didn’t put them in a box and shove them back into a closet.

We grow up looking at pictures everywhere, and the ones that we take ourselves are just extra pictures, more of the same, if maybe not so competent as the ones that we see in magazines and on billboards. But that impression is shared by no one else. To everyone else, our photographs are ours, meaning, not theirs. We know the stories behind our own photographs, but nobody else does. Even if we tell them. If the image does not stand out as a photograph, it’s dead to everyone but ourselves. That’s the way it is, and it’s not easy to accept.

I called them “old photographs,” but in fact the prints that I went through this afternoon are just about the last ones that we had made. (I culled a grand total of about fifteen; but then I was only pulling out the really bad ones.) I am not going to open a box and find two hundred pictures from 2005. The 2005 pictures are stored on a NAS backup drive, as well as on several computers. Culling them will be another sort of project altogether. It won’t be motivated by a lack of house room.


Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel — would I have liked it when I was younger? I don’t think so. What begins as a drily funny story about a dreadful girl, peppered with notes of the burlesque — such as the impudently sudden moment in which the Oxford University Press, no less, is revealed as the schoolgirl author’s publisher of choice, faute de mieux; you laugh, but first, you gasp — gradually becomes the sympathetic portrait of an unusual woman whose pride prevents her from accepting sympathy — something of a puzzle, in short. It is managed by degrees, this shift in coloration. There are many books that begin with gales of satiric giggling or outright laughter, only to settle down sadly into disagreeable consequences, but Angel is not one of them, even if the comic shrieks abate. At the end of the book, Taylor gives us two views of Angel Deverell that strike the same strange note.

Perhaps she saw nothing as it was, everything as it should be, though doubtless never had been; thought she retained whatever her hands had once touched: fame, love, money. Like a fortune-teller in reverse, he knew what she had been, and could tell what she had had by her assumption that it was all there still. (NYRB, 211)

To Lady Baines it seemed that Angel was deteriorating along with her dwindling fortune, but it was a decline of which Angel herself was quite oblivious. She was not so much living in the past as investing the present with what the past had had. To herself, she was still the greatest novelist of her day, and not the first in hisory to receive less homage than was her due. (233)

The note is that, without going to the trouble of shooting anyone, Angel is as mad as Norma Desmond, and as serenely triumphant. By any objective measure, the great good fortune that Angel experiences at the beginning of her career has almost completely dissipated by the time of her final scene, but Taylor has not written an object lesson. We’re not meant to learn from Angel’s mistakes; we’re meant to marvel at her ability to overlook the possibility that she has made any, and to learn something about humanity from the wonder.  

It did occur to me that Taylor’s book suggests that it there is nothing to stop popular artists from falling into hopeless delusion. When sales are brisk but the critics hate you, you’ve no good reason to listen to anyone but yourself. But, even before her success, Angel lives in a closed loop of enchanted imagination. Like an evangelist, she has but to write down the things that appear to her mind. She is both ignorant and incurious, but these characteristics, which would be liabilities to any normal author, free Angel not only to indulge but to capture the wishful thinking that her legions of readers crave. Indeed, it is only when Angel tries — when she rides her hobbyhorses of pacifism and vegetarianism — that her public grows impatient and deserts her. (And, beyond that, of course, every generation has its own brand of wishful thinking, with its own onrushing expiry date.) Angel has no way of understanding her own genius.

Not that it matters; Angel does, as she somewhat smugly reminds herself from time to time (or perhaps all the time), achieve everything that she sets out to achieve — fame and money for certain. It never occurred to her that she would have to hold onto them, so her failure to do so is somewhat beside the point. She breathes her last in the pile of a house that she dreamed of as a girl — you’ve got to hand her that.

I was surprised to learn that François Ozon has made a film of Angel, with a pretty heavy-duty cast (Romola Garai, Michael Fassbender, Sam Neill and Charlotte Rampling). I gather that the movie is a disaster, however — that Ozon completely fails to capture the irony of Taylor’s novel. Tant mieux, say I. I await the arrival of the DVD with exquisite anticipation. 


Speaking of movies, we need one about Charles De Gaulle. We need a movie that culminates with what’s called the Appel du 18 juin 1940, a BBC broadcast in which De Gaulle launched himself not only as the head of the Liberation forces that would drive the Nazis out of France (with a lot of help from the Brits and the Yanks — and also the Russkis) but as the conscience, and therefore ruler, of France itself. In my opinion, the only individual who achieved anywhere near as much for French self-esteem (amour propre) was Louis XIV, who made a hash of just about everything, when you get down to it. De Gaulle made a few hashes himself, but without his beaconic rectitude, it would have taken the French a lot longer to pull themselves out of the disgrace of Vichy. From the very beginning, De Gaulle announced that Vichy hadn’t really happened; it wasn’t over until it was over, and it couldn’t be over as long as he was standing up on two legs.

I thought these moving thoughts this evening while Kathleen took a nap before dinner. I had brought dinner prep to a point from which it would take no more than ten minutes to put spaghetti and meatballs, salad, and garlic toast on the table. I sat down with Lisa Hilton’s The Horror of Love, which I mentioned the other day. I want to say now that Hilton is a gifted writer; not only is her prose agreeable but her arguments are intelligent. More on that some other time. Right now, I simply want to praise her for copying into her text the entire Appeal (in English). In case you’re wondering what bearing it has on the love story of Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski (arguably De Gaulle’s first supporter), then you’ll just have to stay tuned. Just like the French in 1940.

But has the last word been said? Must hope vanish? Is the defeat final? No!

Believe me, for I know what I am talking about and I tell you that nothing is lost for France. The same means that beat us may one day bring victory.

For France is not alone. She is not alone! She is not alone! [I can hardly see to type this.] She has an immense Empire behind her. She can unite with the British Empire, which commands the sea and is carrying on with the struggle. Like England, she can make an unlimited use of the vast industries of the United States.

Pretty to think so: the United States continued to recognize the Vichy regime even after Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war. De Gaulle was famous for making enemies, or at least for not winning friends and influencing people, but FDR must be one of the top Anglophones on the list of statesmen who loathed him.

Did someone say “Napoleon”? Staight to the back of the class with you, if you can’t tell the difference between a borderline grandiose patriot and a narcissistic opportunist.

Weekend Note:
International Progress Weekend 2012

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012


Now that personal blogging is all but dead, I feel easier about flouting its conventions and abusing its platform. But that doesn’t change what you might be thinking. You might be thinking that it’s still reasonable to expect a blog entry to be complete when it is published. As a general rule, anyway. You may not agree that the liveblogging format, which was developed to provide minute-by-minute coverage of thrilling television spectacles (Academy Awards, State of the Union) to readers who are also glued to their sets, works without an external anchor to cue the reader. If you’re not a fan of work in progress, then it’s probably best to hold off reading these Weekend Notes until Sunday night.

For my part, I find that it’s much more agreeable to have an open-ended entry that I can treat as a note pad, sitting down to write whenever struck by something worth writing about. What’s death to those evanescent moments is the mechanical business of opening a new entry &c, which, I being me, can never be a simple matter.  


So much for bright ideas. When Kathleen left to have her hair done, I put on Siegfried, which to me is the most exciting of the Ring operas. That sounds madly contrarian, I know, and it will strike some readers as pretentious. But it has been true ever since I discovered the Ring in college. Siegfried is also the most thoughtful opera of the cycle, which of course adds paradox to my position. But it’s the very drabness of the “story” that allows the compositional heft to upstage the mythology. Wagner weaves his motifs no more deftly here than he does in, certainly, Götterdämmerung, but you notice it more because the characters keep pointing to things that have happened. Sometimes, the music points forward to things that are going to happen, such as the beautiful musical support that Siegfried’s soon-to-be fatal narration elicits from the Gibichung men, foreshadowed as it were in the tranquil Waldvogel music that surrounds the death of Fafner in Act II of Siegfried. You hear it as a kind of hallucination; the men aren’t there, but you hear them. It’s extraordinarily exciting. And then there is the thrilling music that opens Act III, and the interlude that follows Siegfried up to Brünnhilde’s fire-ringed rock. And then Brünnhilde wakes up, and as long as a woman is singing the part, by which I mean to exclude the late Birgit Nilsson (all woman when she sings Verdi, but unsexed by Wagner), I’m crazy about the scene.

Inspired by Siegfried, I had a dozen good ideas for making the apartment a more livable place, and I implemented most of them. The only thought that crossed my mind without having a connection to housekeeping was to wonder if there might be a book out there by Helen Gardner, on the Metaphysical Poets. Alas, no. There’s only her Penguin edition of their poems. I used to have it somewhere; perhaps I still do. I couldn’t take the time to look for it.

And now dinner (chicken sauté) is about ready.


After breakfast, while Kathleen was at Mass, I watched Bernard Tavernier’s 1981 Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate). I was determined to return the rented VHS tape to the Video Room on or before time, and I was also in the mood to sit around and do nothing. Oh, I washed the dishes and made the bed first; I wouldn’t have been able to pay attention to the movie otherwise. The tape quality was pretty awful, and I’m not sure whether this contributed to my being less than bowled over. (The Video Room has not acquired the Criterion Collection DVD.) The story is blackly amusing; a much put-upon policeman (Philippe Noiret) in a remote town realizes that, if he puts a little thought into it, he can get rid of the people who bully him every day, directly or indirectly, in such a way that the blame will fall on others. The scene in which his lover (Isabelle Huppert) shoots his wife (Stéphane Audran) and her “brother” (Eddy Mitchell) is particularly droll, so much so that Tavernier replays it twice (or so it seemed to me). But the setting, in French West Africa in 1938, was uncongenial (not that the Texas of Jim Harrison’s novel, Pop 1280, would have been nearly as appealing), and the manners were unremittingly French provincial. Coup de Torchon was screened at BAM last week, and Ms NOLA and a friend went to see it, finding much to discuss afterward. Perhaps that is what I needed: someone to talk about the movie with. I’m pretty sure that a clearer print would have helped.

I’m reading The Starboard Sea, a first novel by Amber Dermont, and not liking the writing very much. I bought the book almost rashly, on the strength of a favorable review in the Times this past week. (The book garnered a second warm welcome in this weekend’s Book Review.) Only writing on the level of Jennifer Egan or John Jeremiah Sullivan could have contended with the run of first-rate English fiction — what I mean to say is, “fiction written in first-rate English” — that I enjoyed in February (all of Edward St Aubyn, plus one each by Alan Hollingshurst and Rose Macaulay). The Starboard Sea seems to have a story worth reading, but the writing falls short in various ways, which I am cataloguing as I go along. I do not enjoy not enjoying writing, but I am not too saintly to sigh with satisfaction when I catch a writer doing something that explains why I’m not enjoying the writing.


A week ago Friday, Kathleen and I went to the Rose Theatre in TimeWarner Center to hear Dianne Reeves for the third time.  I don’t know why I haven’t mentioned this sooner, or said anything about the evening. Ms Reeves possesses a voice of instrumental distinction; Berlioz and Strauss would have had to create a chapter just for her in their treatise on orchestration. She is perhaps the most musical singer whom I’ve ever heard. This is grounds for caution, I discovered: the fact that Dianne Reeves could make beautiful music out of her grocery shopping list does not mean that she can fashion a beautiful song from such material, and her penchant for singing remarks about her songs that another singer would speak had at times the result of trivializing the import of the songs’ lyrics. Better to stick to vocalise, the spinning of wordless arias far beyond scat, that Ms Reeves gets better at every time we hear her. Indeed, one of her best numbers, which I entitled “Barcelona” simply because I didn’t know what else to call her incredibly powerful and expressive response to watching a Spanish singer on television, was set to words in no known language and every one.

My other quibble was with a song that I subsequently learned is the work of Ani DiFranco. It is, as I gather many of Ms DiFranco’s songs are, about resentful anger, and this is not an emotion that suits Dianne Reeves at all. Everything about her persona suggests a someone skilled at avoiding occasions of resentment. And one tour of the lyrics of “32 Flavors” was enough. Thirty-two rounds, or what began to feel that many, sounded impoverished.

Ms Reeves’s band was great, no surprise. But I didn’t show up to hear a band, and what was also no surprise was my liking best the two duets that figured in the program, “One For My Baby,” with her bass player, Reginald Veal, and “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” with Brazilian guitarist (and source of significant inspiration) Romero Lubambo. These songs could have gone on to twice their length without palling. What I didn’t much like was the full band’s attack on “Stormy Weather.” I appreciated the chart’s success at rendering the song itself stormy, or at least dangerously unmoored, but I felt that one of my favorite pieces in the songbook was taking a beating. 

A few nights later, Kathleen and I were talking about cabaret nightclubs such as the Plaza Hotel’s long-gone Persian Room, and sighing wistfully. We’re unlikely to see the likes of them again. And Dianne Reeves’s concert at the Rose shows why. From the musicians’ standpoint, things couldn’t be better. They get to perform in a large but acoustically rewarding hall before an audience undistracted by food, drink, or waitstaff. I cannot say that the now-settled installation of jazz in the formal concert hall is shortchanging its excitement. (Ms Reeves received a warm and very enthusiastic response from a full house.) If anything, it’s teaching audiences at classical music concerts to be a bit more lively. The one thing that doesn’t vary is that everyone is there for the music.


After dinner, I’ve sat down to look at the mail. In the spam folder, a note from someone anonymous who is summarizing Montaigne’s essays in order, one a day, in Web log. The summaries, so far, are extremely readable, and even sound like Montaigne — what Montaigne would sound like if he were writing blog entries. Now that nobody has all the time in the world…

Weekend Note:
20 February 2012

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Yes, I know that it’s Monday. But it’s still a three-day weekend, Presidents’, as it happens. Kathleen has to go to work anyway — the punchline to a joke that I’m not going to spell out is “What else is there to do in Chicago?” — but I shall be brave and manfully resist the pull of weekday duty. I may even go to the movies. The characteristic paradox is that I’m celebrate taking the day off by sitting at the computer at 7:30 in the morning. For the first time in weeks, I’m up before nine, and, more important, writing before breakfast.


Perhaps my renewed vigor has something to do with Kathleen’s having found a house to rent on Fire Island in late August and early September. It turns out to be a house so hjidden by trees and shrubberies that we never get a look at it, even though we passed by it every time we walked between last summer’s house and Ocean Beach. We know right where it is. I know better than to regard the arrangement as a complete certainty, but it’s as certain as it can be at this point, and that’s good enough for me. I’ve asked Kathleen to ask the owners for the name of a good barber within walking or taxi distance from the Bay Shore ferry terminal. That way, I won’t have to come back to Manhattan at all, not for an entire month. I’ll walk on the beach every day for four weeks, barring hurricanes and other calamities. Whatever comes to pass months from now, I’m going to make the most of the wind that is filling my sails this morning.


Edward St Aubyn was here in town last week. He spoke/read/signed (presumably) at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, his one New York appearance. I didn’t know about it until afterward; I hadn’t been keeping up with Maud Newton. Should I have gone? Ought I to have gone? My interest in these affairs has dropped nearly to zero in recent years. Let me be clear about why: writers’ appearances have come to make me wonder why I didn’t do more, in my youth, to become a writer who makes appearances myself. There are very good reasons why I didn’t, but my vanity is bruised by sitting on the wrong side of the podium. Even worse, I can’t expect authors who acknowledge my raised hand to have an inkling of how lucky they are to have my attention. No matter where I sit, no matter how well-received my question, I’m discontented by my unlisted role in the tea party of life at the Princesse de Guermantes’s.  

As of Wednesday, I had read, just like everybody else, St Aubyn’s Melrose novels but nothing else. Now I’m in the slimmer class of those who have also read one of the author’s two other fictions, both of them written between the third and fourth Melroses. On the Edge is an uncertain book about an ensemble cast on a weekend at the Esalen Institute in California. Parts of it are very funny. Maybe it’s all very funny, but if so, the humor of the New Age metaphysical enquiries that cluster, megalithically, in the middle of the book was lost on me.

In large part, my problem with On the Edge is simply my problem with Crystal Bukowski, who turned out, to my surprise, to be the sympathetic female lead. She may even be the lead. At the start, though, she promises to be a satirical gorgon of psychotherapeutic neediness. Her thoughts about the “hillbilly from hell” (who turns out to be a sweet German) sitting next to her on a San Francisco-bound plane are such that you’ll be glad that she’s not sitting next to you. Her very name seens chosen by that wicked little imp, posing as a Muse, who misleads British writers into temptation when it comes to “amusing” American nomenclature. (Who can forgive or forget Martin Amis’s “Lorne Guyland”?) Is St Aubyn aware that Charles Bukowski was a distinctly anti-New-Age California poet, and too highly seasoned an eponym for comic recycling? And “Crystal”! What a lava lamp of British disdain! How can those of us here in America who read more British fiction than our own not recoil at the introduction, in a novel such as this, of someone called Crystal Bukowski? And yet she is the one, in the end, who attains, if not wisdom, then the calm that attends it.

I don’t mean to fault Edward St Aubyn for the odd miscalculated social cue or implausible accent. That’s really part of the fun. Some readers might tire of the recurrence of solecistic Homeric epithets involving the word “unique,” but as a passionate discriminator of the very unique and the most unique, I giggled like my grandson. Others might take offense from the following grossly exaggerated backstory; I was delighted to read something that made Auntie Mame read like John Updike.

Brooke treated everyone like a servant, which, given that she had thirty of them already, showed a lack of imagination. Her servants, on the other hand, she treated like family, her own family having thrust her among servants throughout her childhood. Brought up in the reputedly gracious south, her parents were given over entirely to alcohol, horses and other rich people who shared their interests. They had not allowed Brooke’s childish cries or lisping enquiries into the meaning of life to mar the elegance of their home. Instead she had been housed with one of the innuerable black families whos unadorned shacks cowered under the fatwood trees, their woodsmoke hanging in the humid air almost as substantially as the membranes of Spanish moss that dangled down to meet it. Brooke had often reflected that she had probably been better off living with Mammy. The riding parties that roamed the plantation in search of the perfect place to have some “special iced tea” as they jokingly called the gallon of cold bourbon to which a tiny splash of tea, one mint leaf and a slice of lemon were apprehensively added by the cook, never trotted down that particular track which led to Mammy’s, its astonishingly orange earth making it look more like a river than a road.

… Returning to Mammy’s in the car [after her father’s funeral], Brooke had developed through a clinging ground mist of misery and incomprehension, a revolutionary fury, a suspicion of rich white people that could have borne cross-examination by Malcolm X, and a determiantion to find meaning beyond the familial horizon ringed by stallions and empty bottles, without heading too far in the direction offered by Mammy’s passion for overeating and fainting in church.

This is marvelous stuff, overdone to a turn. There’s an account, not too many pages later, of a mescaline trip that is not only the funniest thing that I’ve ever read about psychedelic psychosis but also (and I speak from experience) by far the most accurate. But then there are Chapters 7 and 10, given over largely to Crystal’s search for enlightenment, and written with an earnest coherence in which ridicule, if it is present at all, plays an extraordinarily recondite part. I felt that this was supposed to be amusing in the way that Aimée Thanatogenous’s career, in Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, is amusing, but I wasn’t cracking the code.

If anyone is going to be allowed to teach me how to read a book that I don’t get right off the bat, it is Edward St Aubyn. I’m not going to complain that On the Edge wasn’t the romp that I was looking for. I’m going to withhold further commentary until I’ve read A Clue to the Exit, the other non-Melrose entry in the catalogue, which I understand to be even more openly concerned with the problem of identity. (Identity, for St Aubyn, is what memory is for Proust.) We shall see.


 Madness: In an abstracted moment, I ordered The Vault, a new Inspector Wexford mystery by Ruth Rendell, from Amazon in England. It arrived, and spent some time in the pile. I fished it out the other night and began reading. It was late; I was too tired to get very far, and I forgot almost everything that I read. Something about bodies in a pit outside a house in St John’s Wood.

When I picked up the book this morning and started at the beginning, I was seized almost at once with an awful chill: I’d read this before. Well, no, not this book, but this story! I remembered the novel that ended with one of those bodies locked up in the pit — still alive! One of the most horrific endings to one of the best Ruth Rendells (and not an Inspector Wexford book at all): A Sight for Sore Eyes.

Having decided not to make houseroom for old mystery stories, I long ago donated my volumes and volumes of Rendell (& Vine), P D James, Ian Rankin, and so on. I may have held on to A Sight for Sore Eyes; I had only a small paperback copy. But even if I did, it wouldn’t be here at the apartment.

Internet to the rescue: a moment’s Googling confirms my suspicions. (As would the rear of the dust jacket had I bothered to look at it.)

Weekend Note:
12 February 2012

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

We went downtown today to take Will to the park for an hour or so. It was incredibly cold. Running around in the playground kept us warm for a while, but a few minutes’ standing outside the big dog run nearly killed us. We repaired to Sustainable NYC, a shop on Avenue A that we’ve visited many times without being aware of the café in the back (perhaps it’s new?). We learned the real meaning of the word “oasis.” As well, in any case, as we’re ever going to learn it in New York. The moment we sat down, Will’s cheeks, rosy until then, bloomed a livid purple.

The other night, when we were babysitting, we discovered that Will loves money. What he loves about money is scrunching it up and holding it very tight. If you were unaware that American currency has a large fabric component, you would know all about it after handling one of Will’s macerated bills. All I can think of is a new twist on the phrase, “interest-rate squeeze.”

This afternoon, Kathleen placed the change from purchasing our refreshments on the table, and I handed it over to Will. There was a ten and a five and some change. (Sustainable NYC is truly sustainable for customers as well.) After the squeezing, there was much laying-out and counting. At one point, I asked Will for the ten, and he gave to me, just like that. When I asked him for the five, though, he refused. “Nope,” he said. “Well,” I said, “give it to Darney, then.” “It’s Darney’s,” I said. Putting the five in Darney’s hands was an immediate urgency; Will couldn’t hand it over fast enough. As well he might: nothing short of himself would have roused Kathleen on a frigid Sunday in February.

When we weren’t with Will this weekend, we were more or less hibernating. ‘Tis the season. 

Weekend Note:
4-5 February 2012

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

When it was over, I said to Ray Soleil that We Need To Talk About Kevin was the most anhedonic movie that I’d ever seen. There was hardly anythink about it to take pleasure in, although, later, when I was thinking about it, I was fairly blown away by Ezra Miller’s performance as Kevin. I said to Ray that I was in no hurry to see Lynne Ramsay’s picture again anytime soon, but I’m not so sure about that, now that I’ve thought about the movie for a day. In fact it woke me up this morning, thinking about Kevin.

Perhaps there are people who can come away from a movie in which a teenager slaughters fellow students — hardly a commonplace in American life, but a few stories go a long and wearisome way — without wondering how the catastrophe could have been avoided, but I’m not one of them, and I think that I’m in the majority. Of those of us who can’t help wondering, some will conclude that the teenager in question was just bad — evil. Others, like me, will go for “troubled,” meaning that someone might have done something to help. I don’t really think that there was any way to save Kevin Khatchadourian, not by the time he got to high school and perfected his archery. But I read the flashback scenes in which his mother was pregnant with him and then responsible for his colicky infancy as evidence or proof or something that Kevin was an unwanted child. There must be lots of unwanted children, and most of them — most of them? — don’t grow up to be murderers, much less angry, functionally sociopathic murderers. But Eva (Tilda Swinton) and her little boy are both very smart, and they’re engaged almost from the start in a contest for control. At one point — Kevin will later tell his mother that this is the only honest thing she ever did — Eva is so provoked by her son’s insolence that, instead of changing his diaper (again!), she throws him against the wall and breaks his arm.

Some people (Ray, for example), will be drawn to the idea that by the time of the arm-breaking incident, Kevin is already lost as a human being, whoever the cause. But he seemed to think — Ray, that is — that you could simply insitutionalize such a child. I think that he’s wrong about that, at least in the United States. There was a time, yes, when “Reform School” was an effective invocation, but it was already a fiction when my parents were frightening me with it. There are very expensive private schools for difficult children, but really bad kids get thrown out of them.

I want to see We Need To Talk About Kevin because I was distracted by thinking that things were going to get worse for Eva — worse than they were at the “beginning,” when her little house by the tracks and her car are splashed with red paint. This is of course the beginning of Eva’s self-inflicted atonement, her refusal to run away to a town where nobody knows her. (You don’t realize until the end how awfully free she is to make this resolution. She thinks that Kevin’s crime is her fault — she has no doubt about it. But in fact things don’t get worse for Eva. She finds a job, keeps it; she scrubs the paint away. She visits Kevin — in a twist, he has not taken his own life, but, in another, he has not stopped at fellow students — every week, and eventually they talk. At the end, Kevin is old enough to be shipped off to a real prison. He’s scared about that. Eva doesn’t think that he’ll be in for very long; being a smart kid, he went on his killing spree days before his sixteenth birthday, and flooded his bloodstream with Prozac. Time’s up on their interview. Kevin gives his motehr a hug, a real, desperate hug. I have to see this movie again.

I will say this: I think that Eva ought to have nixed the archery. No real arrows, at least.


What a weekend! It could not have been more bon bourgeois on the outside, quiet and at home. So much for (non-)appearances. In reality, I spent much of yesterday and most of today in a Polish space capsule of how-dumb-am-I humiliation. If there is a moment that I’d like to have preserved on film, it would be the shot of me when I realized that the late Princess Margaret has what in the theatre is called a big speaking part in the finale of Edward St Aubyn’s third “Melrose” novel, Some Hope. Surely she must have died before it was published; she might have sued for libel otherwise, even if every line attributed to her was notarized verbatim. St Aubyn simply skewers her, shifting his polarizing lens between “beastly” and “inane.” The effect is too cumulative for quotation. I haven’t been so shocked since Vile Bodies, which I read as a teenager. St Aubyn one-ups Waugh by replacing the fantastically burlesque with the plausibly ludicrous. 

WHY DID IT TAKE ME SO LONG TO READ THIS BOOK? I’m haunted by the honte of being the last boy on the block. And as if that weren’t bad enough, I saw Truffaut’s La nuit américaine (Day For Night) for the first time. Why? Because, when I was writing up (or down, more likely) Pico Iyer’s book about Graham Greene, and leafing through Shirley Hazzard’s far more vivid book, I came across her mention of scolding Greene for his stiff performance in the movie. He plays an insurance broker who has to tell the director played by Truffaut himself that scenes involving the star (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who has just died in an auto accident cannot be re-shot with another actor; the film will have to be “simplified” to make use of the existing footage. I didn’t think that Greene was bad, really, but, Lordy, hearing his ripe RP accent was a shock. Here’s this “hard case,” sounding like a footman in Buck House. When I mentioned my surprise to Kathleen at dinner, she asked if Damon Runyon spoke like his characters. A point, as Addison DeWitt acknowledged…

Plus the whole weekend’s Timeses and two chapters of The Princess Casamassima plus most of Andrew Pettegree’s chapter about Luther’s impact on the printing business throughout Europe (wildly varied), Season Five of Lewis (sinking me in the conlcusion that nobody but nobody can play Patrick Melrose except Laurence Fox, which you probably regard as a total duh). Plus the regular Saturday tidying (to Lohengrin) and two tasty dinners, not to mention laying the bacon out in the pan last night so that all I had to do this morning, in order to make sure that we were done with breakfast in time for Kathleen to go to Mass, was to turn on the oven. Plus a letter or two, and spending really rather longer than intended on a superb playlist featuring Jessica Molaskey, Jane Monheit, Kurt Elling, Stacey Kent, and a number of other stylish troubadors. Not to mention finally uploading seven of our ten Manhattan Transfer CDs, along with the latest Pink Martini.




“Are you going back to Ireland?” his father asked.

“No, I’ll be in the cottage through August,” said Seamus. The Pegasus Press have asked me to write a short book about the shamanic work.”

“Oh, really,” said Julia. “how fascinating. Are you a shaman yourself?”

[PATRICK/LAURENCE ->] “I had a look at the book that was in the way of my shoes,” said his father, “and some obvious questions spring to mind. Have you spent twenty years being the disciple of a Siberian witch doctor? Have you gathered rare plants under the full moon during the brief summer? Have you been buried alive and died to the world? Have your eyes watered in the smoke of campfires while you muttered prayers to the spirits who might help you to save a dying man? Have you drunk the urine of caribou who have grazed on amanita muscaria and journeyed into other worlds to solve the mystery of a difficult diagnosis? Or did you study in Brazil with the ayabuascaras of the Amazon basin?”

“Well,” said Seamus, “I trained as a nurse with the Irish National Health.”

“I’m sure that was an adequate substitute for being buried alive,” his father said.

Weekend Note:
Movie Star
29 January 2012

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

Last night, I watched Eric Civanyan’s Il ne faut jurer de rien (Never Say Never: 2005), an adaptation of a play by Alfred de Musset starring Gérard Jugnot, Mélanie Doutey, and Jean Dujardin. Set in 1830, during the “revolution” that sent Charles X packing and put his cousin Louis-Philippe on a more parliamentary throne, the story is a daffy farce in which a wealthy department-store owner determines to marry his ne’er-do-well nephew to a spirited but penniless baroness. It’s hard to believe that I’ve only seen M Jugnot, whose face has the knack of becoming instantly familier, in two other pictures, Les choristes and Faubourg 36, but there it is. Mlle Doutey is not just another pretty face; she has something of Annette Bening’s fierceness. Jean Dujardin plays the nephew.

M Dujardin is obviously a great comedian. Whether he is also a great actor is harder to tell, because, even more than a comedian, he is a great movie star. This makes the great-actor question irrelevant. It is obvious to me, on the basis of Il ne faut jurer de rien and OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d’espions that The Artist was made as a showcase for Jean Dujardin’s talent, and to remind the world what a great movie star is like: a face and a (fully clothed) body capable of sustaining interest in a very familiar story without saying a word. Without M Dujardin, The Artist would be an amusing stunt, a French movie made entirely in and around Los Angeles, mashing up a passel of Hollywood chestnuts into what one Internet wag has called A Star Is Born Singin’ In the Rain on Sunset Boulevard.

Instead of being a stunt, The Artist is the study of a face. It’s an incredibly interesting face, Jean Dujardin’s, because it is very hard to pin down. What does it really look like? I don’t know how this works, exactly, but sometimes it is the mouth that you notice, and sometimes the nose (especially in profile, naturally). Then there is that smile, which is simply the biggest smile ever flashed for a camera; if it were any bigger, you could see it standing behind the man. He can narrow his eyes in steely cruelty or open them wide in ingenuous, almost idiotic delight. And what a difference a pencil moustache makes! His trademark look is possibly the one that he makes in the outgoing credits of OSS 117: affably smiling with uncertain, not-quite-clueless eyebrows. Possibly. I’ve only seen three movies, and Jean Durjardin turns 40 in June.

And here I thought I was up on current French cinema.


I’ve just returned from a quick trip to Fairway. It would have been quicker at almost any other time; Sunday afternoon and early evening are said to be the store’s busiest hours.  I’m still amazed by the people who seem to think that they’re standing in a quaint rural grocery store, and not in a stream of human traffic that makes the city’s busiest subway stations look underused. The people who, for example, stand alongside their shopping carts, double parking as it were. I don’t mind it so much, because I’m a big guy. I can see over everybody’s head. Kathleen would feel horribly pinned. The elevators remain a challenge. I have taken to choosing one, standing nearby, and waiting for it to arrive.

If our branch of Fairway seems poorly designed, it’s hard to imagine any improvements, but there’s one thing that I would have done differently . Where is it written that fruit and vegetables are the first things that shoppers want to see? I should think they’d be among the last, and one of the things that I like best about our Gristede’s, across the street, is that produce is tucked into an alcove that you don’t have to pass through. At Fairway, I would trade produce upstairs for the bakery and dairy sections downstairs, effectively rendering the street level a convenience store.

All the while I was pushing my cart through the throng — my guilty contribution to the store’s chaos was the lazy decision to use a cart, when everything on my list wouldn’t have filled a hand basket — I was thinking about Marilynne Robinson growing up in the West — in northern Idaho. There’s an article about this in the new issue of Bookforum, a review of a collection of Robinson’s essays by Charles Petersen, who also grew up out there. He quotes a line from the title essay, “When I Was a Child I Read Books.”

I find that the hardest work in the world — it may in fact be impossible — is to persuade Easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling.

She wouldn’t have any trouble persuading me. I grew up in an intellectually stunting Westchester suburb, a haven of WASP purity that scowled handsomely at anything not involving a ball. I’d have thought that growing up in the West was socially crippling, though. After all, I could escape Bronxville on day trips to Manhattan, at least from the age of 12, which is about when my intellect kicked in. Where do you go in the West? You make the most of the solitude, I suppose. I don’t care for solitude as such. I spend the vast bulk of every day by myself, but I’m too busy to register the solitariness of my hours. When I’m not working, I don’t want to be alone. I love walking out into the almost always crowded street. It’s like a drink of clear cool water. Only rarely do I see anyone I know, so you could say that my solitude follows me outdoors. But I would much rather be alone in a rush of New Yorkers heading every which way for every imaginable purpose than sit by myself on the bank of a woodland stream. And I am always hoping that someone will ask me for directions.

I’ve been working hard at reading Marilynne Robinson’s Terry Lectures, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness From the Modern Myth of the Self. I know that its an argument against the presumptions of secular godlessness, and I enjoy seeing them treated as presumptions. But I don’t know what Robinson would put in their place, beyond a good-natured piety, a sense of stewardship for the things of the world. I’ve got that, but I sense that there’s more. What I really want to know is how Robinson feels about the notion that some people have of being able to speak for God, on the authority of Scripture or some even more intimate contact. In the second lecture, “The Strange History of Altruism,” she writes,

Assuming that there is indeed a modern malaise, one contributing factor might be the exclusion of the felt life of the mind from the accounts of reality proposed by the oddly authoritative and deeply influential parascientific literature that has long associated itself with intellectual progress, and the exclusion of felt life from the varieties of thought and art that reflect the influence of these accounts.

What is she talking about, “the exclusion of the felt life of the mind”? I’m not aware of the “felt life of the mind” being an inadmissible topic, and I have no idea what the “varieties of thought and art that reflect” the exluding proposals look like. (Maybe I don’t think that art that seems to deny or to minimize humanity to be art at all.) Robinson’s tone is argumentative in a way that leaves me wondering if I’ve missed something. As undoubtedly I have, what with growing up in the intellectually crippling conditions the Holy Square Mile.

Weekend Note:
21-22 January 2012

Saturday, January 21st, 2012


If I go outdoors this afternoon, ought I to use a cane? One of those awful adjustable hospital things? I’ve got at least one in the closet. Do I really need to go out? Or am I just feeling a little restless, anticipating the pleasure of coming home from having been out in the cold. I’d really like to have a small steak for dinner.

Kathleen is off to Florida tomorrow afternoon for an industry confab; today, she’s taking the day off. Unlike me, she is not tempted to go outside. She is tempted to stay right where she is, under the covers. And she’s doing a fine job of giving it to it, too.

Last night, we sat with Will while his parents went out for dinner. It is clear that he calls me “Dadoo.” He’ll say “Daddy” first and then correct himself. Not only does he say “Darney” perfectly clearly, but he recognized Kathleen as such in one of the postcards that I showed him. This was before Kathleen arrived from the office. The postcard was one of the pictures that I took two weeks ago. Which reminds me: I ought to be sending them out right this minute. The postcard rate goes up tomorrow, and I have a few books of soon-to-be-insufficient self-sticks in the drawer. Anyway, Will looked at the postcard and said, “Darney.” D’you think “Dadoo” will stick? Kathleen claims to find it at least as cool as “Doodad.” I don’t. It reminds me of “Tutu,” the Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother in The Descendants.


The other day, I was casting about for a good read when one fell into my lap, right off my own shelf. I’d come across a receipt from Chatsworth, which I’ve never been to but from whose Web site I ordered a few books a while back. Instead of throwing the piece of paper away, I decided to tuck it into one of the books that I’d bought, all of which were either by or about Nancy Mitford. And right next to whichever one I tucked the receipt into was Wigs on the Green, which I didn’t even think I owned. The title is such a tease — whatever can it mean? Well, you find out, in the penultimate chapter or thereabouts.

Even though I recognized Eugenia Malmains as a caricature of Unity Mitford — the sister who shot herself when Britain declared war on Germany and who died of meningitis nine years later — I let the Mitford references that I got roll right off my back and didn’t go looking for others. Wigs on the Green is a sparkling but melancholy entertainment. In Waugh, who is so much darker, you’re invited to agree with the author that human beings are a depraved race. Mitford’s view is sounder, or at any rate grounded in history. Her disaffected, understating bright young things would clearly rather die than yield to a Victorian sentiment, and it’s clear that economic hardship is fermenting strange political brews. Mitford sits on the fence, laughing; she writes gleefully of geriatric Lords and MPs who “creep about the halls of Westminster like withered tortoises, seeking to warm themselves in the synthetic sunlight of each other’s approbation,” but she also shines a gimlet eye on the hysteria of ideology, particularly as embodied by Eugenia/Unity. Charlotte Mosley, in her introduction, puts it very well: “The dark side of Unity’s character is plain enough to see: ruthlessness, naïveté and a love of showing off, combined with an attraction to violence and a desire to shock, produced moral blindess of an extreme kind.”

But Mitford is naïve, too, or at least prone to wishful thinking: how much she would have liked to have a martini-chilled romance such as Jasper and Poppy’s, in which all the satisfactions of love are assumed to flow unspoken beneath a burble of vaguely affectionate insults. Mitford could do the insults with half an eye open, but she never got the passion. The men to whom her heart was drawn were either gay or cads. Nobody ever loved Nancy the way her sisters were loved — all of them, even Unity (by Hitler, I’m convinced — although chastely). It’s arguable that Nancy loved to show off as much as Unity did. She was always begging people not to take her acidic protraits too seriously. Surely they must see her caricatures as harmless, amusing distortions that no one would ever mistake for objective representation? Something occluded Mitford’s sense of being able to hurt other people’s feelings. She liked doing it too much. Moral blindness &c.

But there’s a difference between pursuing Hitler for uplifting post-prandial fireside chats and writing funny novels. We always forgive those who make us laugh.


I saw The Artist yesterday and was as blown away as anybody, possibly even moreso. Nothing had prepared me for the ecstatic finale, elegant tribute to a movie that I’ve probably seen a few more times than most cinema fans, and it was only because I couldn’t decide whether to jump out of my skin or sob to death that I am here today. Sadly, I cannot discuss the movie until everybody has seen it. So see it!


Kathleen flew down to Florida this afternoon, for a convention that will keep her indoors for the most part but delightful warm when she isn’t. The minute she left, I felt the air go out of my tires. I am a slow learner: when Kathleen’s about to take a trip, I think that I’ll do thus and so, as if there were things that I do that require her absence. In the event, I’m beset by a general lack of desire to do anything. Thank heaven for reading.

I plowed through to the end of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s remarkable Pulphead, and decided that it is a memoir. Nothing could be further from the “collection of essays” or miscellany of magazine articles than this book; nor could it be less conventionally journalistic, no, not even if David Foster Wallace wrote it. Sullivan doesn’t write about unusual things, he writes from amidst them. And he is not a complete outsider when he crosses the line (which he always does briskly) between “reporting” and “living.” The book’s title is more apt than I thought: it is Sullivan himself who is the pulphead. He reminds me of that stage that serious bloggers go through early on, when they do things so that they can blog about them. That’s exactly what Sullivan does. How intentionally or straightforwardly he does it is not always clear. In the final essay, “Peyton’s Place,” it is never stated that Sullivan and his pregnant wife bought a house in Wilmington, North Carolina, because  they knew that the producers of One Tree Hill had been using it as a location and would be wqilling to pay, basically, the Sullivans’ mortgage to continue to use it, but this is not denied, either. It doesn’t matter. Sullivan’s very home life is more interesting than yours or mine, because he shares it with a fictional teen-aged orphan in a bad but popular cable drama.

And, as the dislaimers at the end of “The Violence of the Lambs” remind us, Sullivan’s pieces are not always strictly non-fictional. No matter. As the book went on, I found myself less and less concerned with whatever his nominal topic was and far more interested in what he would do with it, or let it do to him. Now I have to go back and re-read the beginning of “Upon This Rock,” the book’s first and most written-about piece, because Sullivan rather nakedly lays out a completely abortive strategy for “covering” a Christian-rock festival at Lake of the Ozarks; it is so funny and at the same time creepy that you fall for an image of the writer as a naïve tyro looking for a cool angle and bombing badly. What you don’t see until much later (“American Grotesque” for me) that you see what a troublemaker Sullivan is. I wouldn’t accuse him of starting a fire so that he could write about the excitement, but only because he’s not destructive by nature. No; he’s creative.

William Gibson’s Distrust That Particular Flavor is like Pulphead in one way only: it’s a collection of pieces published (or read) elsewhere. It is so far from Sullivan’s brand of non-fiction that some sort of triangle seems called for. If Sullivan is practicing journalism at the most advanced level, Gibson is simply sharing his thoughts about things, something that nobody would be asking him to do if he weren’t a celebrated writer of science fiction. Everything that he says is interesting, including the few things that he says about himself, but the air is thick with after-dinner smoke. The degree to which Gibson asks you to think about the world around you is approached by Sullivan in only one of his essays, “The Violence of the Lambs” — and then only remotely.

More on Gibson later. I’m just hoping that he’ll say, somewhere, that “the future is here, but unequally distributed,” so that we can source the quote.


Weekend Note:
14-17 January 2012

Saturday, January 14th, 2012


After a bit of a relapse on Thursday, I rallied yesterday afternoon, at least enough to run across the street to the movies, to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Although it’s full of very fine performances, I’m not sure why it was made. Was the miniseries with Alec Guinness out of date? Was it thought prudent to provide younger viewers with a sexy reminder of the Cold War?


All of a sudden, it is the middle of the afternoon, about to start getting dark. I slept in a bit — not as late as I’ve been doing, but ruinously nonetheless for my dreams of getting things done. By “getting things done,” however, I no longer mean working my way down a to-do list. I mean finding the rhythms that will make it more likely than not that to-do lists won’t grown to inordinate lengths. This entry is part of the experiment; never, in fact, has blogging felt anything like so experimental to me. In part, I’m using the blog as a scratch pad for more or less literate notes. But I’m also cultivating it as a place that I can drop in on without a great deal of self-conscious fuss. Maybe sleeping in wasn’t so ruinous, after  all.

I’ve spent an hour grappling with Marilynne Robinson’s Absense of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness From the Modern Myth of the Self. Presented as a series of lectures, the fabric of Robinson’s thought is uncommonly dense, and not always as lucid as at first appears. The gist, to far, seems to be: Not so fast! She objects to the modern penchant for assuming the humanity has crossed a threshold, beyond which old assumptions and habits of thought — most notably, belief in God — are no longer valid and must be discarded. I agree with her, that the habit is gross; terms remain undefined, the location of the threshold shifts from argument to argument, and the past is almost always misread with condescending simplification. Beyond that, however, I haven’t been able to advance.

I do believe that a threshold has been crossed, and that things are different on this side of the passage. For me, the threshold was the repudiation of Papal authority by many bands of self-styled Christians during what we call, quite misleadingly, the Reformation. Papal authority was repudiated not in favor of some other insitutional authority (however many intermediate steps marked any denomination’s departure from orthodoxy), but in recognition of something newly felt to be pressing by many European minds in the early Sixteenth Century — it had been felt earlier, but now it was felt by many — and I call this something the sacrosanct nature of every soul’s individual relationship with its Creator. I think that we’re still getting used to this remarkable idea, that each and every one of us is equally special in the eys of God — that is to say, equally distinct. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, I am not significantly like you. Most of us probably don’t really accept this, especially if we’re unusually gifted, in which case it seems obvious that the talented few stand out from the crowd of ordinary people. But there is really no way to argue the protestant claim — in today’s terms, I would say that no other human being has the right to govern my understanding of and honor for the world I live in — without allowing it to every man and woman on earth, everywhere.

In the terms that Isaiah Berlin would use, establishing the paramountcy of the personal relationship with God was a freedom from. We have been looking for the corresponding freedom(s) to ever since. Many people, some of them quite gifted thinkers, have found the task of filling the space once occupied by ecclesiastical pronunciamento to be extremely taxing; many have felt despair. Is it true that, without God, everything is permitted? What kinds of truths can be admitted, if we see ourselves as accidental productions of impersonal evolutionary forces?

I would add this question: what is vital and interesting about the autonomous self? My hunch is that the answer involves the multiplicity of relationships that we forge with each other. I believe that “society” is the result of all of these relationships, something of which we all have a strong but inexorably imprecise understanding. These are notions that I will keep to the fore as I read Marilynne Robinson’s demanding book.

Also interesting, if nowhere near so taxing, was Garth Risk Hallberg’s essay in the Times Magazine, “Why Write Novels At All?” At the heart of his argument lies a book that came along “after my time,” Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction. I bought a copy recently and found the book to be mercilessly cynical. Its governing idea, I gather, is to apply truisms that have always been made about pretensions of social status to the hitherto “transcendant” world of art, so that a taste for Jane Austen is morally equivalent to a taste for Jimmy Choos. I reject this idea, because I believe that a taste for Jane Austen will significantly influence the kinds of relationships that I forge with other people; to the extent that my taste for Jane Austen is a good taste — as opposed to the obviously sentimentalizing taste that “allowed” some Germans to venerate Beethoven and Goethe while herding Jews into death camps — my relationships will be better, healthier relationships: I’m not ashamed to say that I believe that. The fact that I’ve been permitted by good fortunate to develop a taste for Jane Austen in no way diminishes its virtue; nor do I derive any conscious satisfaction from the suggestion that my taste for Jane Austen is uncommon, that it makes me stand out among men. I derive only sadness from that observation. I wish that everyone shared my good fortune. Meanwhile, I’m trying to make the best of it.

Hallberg argues that what he calls the “Conversazioni group” of novelists — Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, and others — have only intermittently succeeded at making the case that “there are other people besides ourselves in the world, whole mysterious inner universes.” I don’t know why the exercise of imagining someone else’s inner universe is laudable or even desirable. Wouldn’t the hermeneutics of postmodernism suggest that the mere having of an idea of what it’s like to be someone else is probably a delusion, and certainly an appropriation, and imposition of yourself upon that someone else? And isn’t it simplistic to imagine that “whole mysterious universes” could be intelligibly grasped? What I want to know about other people is not what they’re “really feeling” — I’ve learned that the sense of what I’m “really feeling” is usually no more informative than a fun-house mirror — but what they’re really prepared to bring to any relationship. I’ve also learned that, if someone else doesn’t wish to have a relationship with me in the first place, I will probably never understand why.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering, in light of all of this, why I think that Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station are really good novels that everyone ought to read, even though they are so focused on individual male points of view that it’s hard to imagine Garth Risk Hallberg giving either of them the time of day. Is it just that they’re both superbly well-written? And what would that mean?


How nice to have a three-day weekend in the middle of January, especially as one is able to appreciate it now that one has recovered a bit from holiday colds! I made a bacon breakfast, which is to say that I put a pan of thick-sliced bacon in a hot oven for an hour, turning every twenty minutes. For the first twenty minutes, I sat in the bedroom and did not read the Times. No! The best way to start the day is by writing, but the second-best is by reading anything but the New York Times — the writing just gets worse and worse. I picked up instead Peter Conrad’s Verdi and/or Wagner and read a lot of blather (I thought) about the nationalist backgrounds (or not) of the two great opera composers. There are a lot of Wagner quotes, because Wagner was a prolific writer of tracts and treatises — a genuine windbag. In contrast, Verdi, left to himself, would, I think, have gone in for sheer muteness, contributing nothing but his scores to the general conversation (and all those letters to his librettists). As a remarkable side-effect of the morning’s reading, I may have nailed the difference between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines once and for all. The original Guelphs were Braunschweiger notables who supported papal claims to imperium as a way of centralizing power in a distant city and letting geography neuter it. Later, they became the Hanoverian kings of England, and did not support the Pope in any way. Don’t take my word for any of this.

Catching up with Facebook yesterday, I learned that a friend became the father of twins on Friday. Very good news indeed! It took me back to a conversation that we had, not all that many years ago, over drinks on the terrace at the New Leaf Café, after a tour of the Cloisters. My friend talked about wanting children, and I talked about wanting grandchildren. Our difficulties were similar: neither he nor my daughter was in a relationship at the time. All that has since changed. My wish was granted two years ago, and now my friend is equally fortunate. I wish him all the best, &c — but what I really would give him if I could is the concentrated somatic supplement for all the sleep that he is going to miss in the next few years. And I hope that one of his children will make him a grandfather before he is too very ancient.  


I can tell you exactly why it took me forever to get round to seeing The Descendants: Hawai’i. I have only one good thing to say about Hawai’i: I hope that we give it back. On the basis of a few days in Waikiki and at the Howard Johnson motel near the airport, I can say that, given the ultimatum, I would rather live in New Jersey, and I can’t think of anything worse to say about anywhere.

We went to see the movie late this afternoon, thinking schizophrenically that the showing would be deserted because it has been at the East 85th Stree Theatre for weeks and weeks, and also that it would be crowded because of the Golden Globes. I said to Kathleen: we must leave at ten past four. We left at twenty past, and bitter recriminations, if not an outright divorce, might have been in the offing if it hadn’t been for a miraculously empty pair of seats by the aisle in the last row right as we entered the theatre.

Alexander Payne’s production values back me up about Hawai’i: everything manmade in out there is a monstrosity, or else a sad old fading stucoo villa, like the house, not very imposing, in which Matt King (George Clooney), trustee of an enormous settler windfall, has parked his family. He insists on living on the interest, not the principal, of his family’s wealth, and makes a mortal enemy of his cheating wife’s father-in-law. Given the shabbiness of his maison, it’s rich to hear his father-in-law, played by Robert Forster, complain about his cheapness, his stinginess, his refusal to spend his money. Money that Matt King, a proper New Englander however trasnplanted, doesn’t believe is his own. The miracle, of course, is that the movie makes you care, deeply, about Robert Forster’s daddy’s-girl dad. He’s a shit and a chimp, but you weep for his sorrow.

As in all Alexander Payne movies, we are treated to the way in which Americans actually behave, particularly our penchant for the crashing juxtaposition of high-mindedness and comic relief. Americans are the most professionally nice people to adorn the homo sapiens family tree, but their sweetness and patience have definite limits, and The Descendants is a kind of catalogue raisoné of closure. As in all the best George Clooney movies, we’re treated to a few moments of crazy George, stalking his wife’s lover with the autonomatic intensity of Charlie Chaplin. Matt King is a good guy, really; never once does he yield to the misery of discvoering his wife’s infidelity; never once does he seize high ground as the honorable partner. His workaholism, if that’s what it is, may have made him inattentive to his wife and daughters’ life at home; equally, you think that this is a guy who ought to have had sons — the advice that his older daughter’s marvelously cloudy boyfriend, Sid, offers when Matt asks how to deal with his girls now that their mother is in a coma and dying. (“I’d trade them in for sons, I don’t know.”) But sons are not essential. At a key moment, it’s Matt’s older daughter, played with aplomb by Shailene Woodley, who nudges her father with “Don’t be a pussy.” That’s a line that only underscores what you’re already thinking, which is that only Cary Grant could have played this role, until Clooney that is.

Only Cary Grant. The moment in the Kaui’i restaurant, after Matt has just discovered that his wife’s lover will hit it rich as the realtor connected to the development of his family’s property, when you realize that Matt just wants to throw up but must somehow sit through a family meal. Much of the excitement of The Descendants consists in Clooney’s beein joyfully less violent than you think he might be. His big tantrum involves throwing a stuffed bear across a room. The rest of the time, he is a model to us all. He hits no one and is unfailingly decent. Payne knows how to make this restraint look as heroic as it ought to do, and we are deeply in their gift.

We’ll save our talk about developers for another time.




Weekend Note:
8 January 2012

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

We have had a visit, this afternoon, from Will and his mother, who brought him uptown on her new bicycle. Much easier than trying to get a taxi, she says. It certainly makes me wish that I were younger and fitter. Instead, I’m reminded of the story a doctor told me about an ace cyclist who was afflicted, like me, with ankylosing spondylitis. As he refused to give up his passion, his back gradually but inexorably fused in racing position. Walking across a room must have been incredibly awkward and painful.

Thoughts like that reconcile me to the slog of getting better, something that I’m not entirely sure that I’m doing at the moment. I’ve been thinking, ever since Megan and Will left, about crawling back into bed. It’s possible that I ought to be doing something a little more lively than perusing the London Review of Books. I read the Alan Bennett diary and Jenny Diski’s Short Cuts the moment I got my copy; now I’m down to Rosemary Hill on Capability Brown. The Bennett is, as always, a marvel of cutting away. In about as many entries as there are days in a month, the uncannily youthful Bennett gives us the flavor of his year, still rolling his eyes with barely suppressed enthusiasm at the droll folly of the world. Smack in the middle is a pearl of narrative concision concerning an RAF pilot’s emergency landing in a Yorkshire valley in 1941 — there’s a movie in there! Jackson Lear’s review of biographies of President Obama’s parents can only be called unsparing, but I quite agree with Lear that the president is a technocrat, not a politician; as with Jimmy Carter, we’re finding that we’re not best served by chief executives who not only would rather be somewhere else but positively dislike living in Washington. I don’t know what to make of the fact, noted by Hill, that Capability Brown filed his receipts as royal gardener under “K,” for “King.” All in all, an incredibly naive choice. Wouldn’t “HRH” spring more naturally to mind, or, failing that, “C” for “Crown”?

Yesterday was a bustle — perhaps too much of one for a convalescent. Paperwork, mostly. Throwing things away, mostly. V satisfying, as any number of diarists might put it — unsatisfactorily, in my opinion. Writing abbreviated prose, however convenient, is deplorable because reading abbreviated prose is never straightforward. I detest texting for this reason. The Nederlands word for “you” may be “U,” but this never occurs to me when I stumble across minor but reeking illiteracies of that kind.  The whole art of writing is to make what you’re doing look wonderfully easy without reminding the reader that what he or she is doing is wonderfully unnatural. Such idiotismes as “C U L8TR” have precisely the opposite effect: the reader has to work to translate what, in the end, seems wonderfully stupid.

Did you see Caitlin Flanagan’s piece about Joan Didion in The Atlantic? Flanagan’s latest can-you-top-this bit of retroshock is the assertion that “to love Joan Didion … you have to be female.” It comes at the beginning of what is actually a commendable appreciation of Didion’s early work and why it had such an impact on young women in the Sixties and Seventies. Flanagan is wrong to charge Didion with being “another tired espouser of the most doctrinaire New York Review of Books political opinions,” whatever that means; does anyone else remember Didion’s bracingly conservative take on the Terri Schiavo case? But that’s a detail. It’s harder to argue with Flanagan’s case that Didion was a less-than-compleat mom. However: do you really have to be a woman to love Joan Didion? I admire Joan Didion’s writing, and not least for its acuity about style and fashion — concerns which, in Didion’s view, you don’t have to be female to care about. (One senses that Flanagan feels v differently.) But do I love her?

When I get better, I want to return to one of my pet projects, which is a plot outline of Jane Austen’s Emma. (I do love Jane Austen.) When I read the book a few months ago, it struck me that there are three moments in the novel when the quality of the language undergoes a shift, with the result that Emma falls into four movements, not unlike a classical symphony, with a brisk and energetic opening, a languid slow movement, a comic scherzo, and a happy ending. (I have, however, outgrown the impulse to scout for correspondences to sonata form.) I want to show that this sequence of different inflections is what sustains the narrative and makes Emma the great read that it is. And I want to hammer home the difference between the joyfulness of Austen’s prose style and the cloudiness of her story, which, really, ought to be a lesson unto us. We oughtn’t to like Emma Woodhouse, and if you read the book multiple times, there will be at least one occasion when you’re tempted, at the very least, to hate her. But Charlotte Brontë did not write Emma. George Eliot did not write Emma. (Imagine!) Even Mrs Gaskell didn’t write Emma. Jane Austen did — and so we love Emma, because, as they say, she makes us laugh. 

We hadn’t seen Will since Christmas, and it was hard to believe how much development he had packed into two weeks. His vocabulary has exploded — it now includes my name, which he pronounces as “Dadoo.” (He says “Darney,” his name for Kathleen, quite clearly.) He is surprisingly agile: he carried his little wicker chair from the living room to the blue room without bumping into anything. (Though he did keep saying, “heavy!”) There was once dicey moment, when he discovered the train set, still in its box, that I never got round to setting up at the base of the Christmas tree; it had been resting against a wall for so many days that I’d stopped seeing it. The train set weighed even more than the wicker chair, but there were no remarks to that effect. Just a pssionate interest in the locomotive bneath several layers of plastic packaging. A distraction was successfully hit upon — Facebook friends will know what it was — one that had nothing to do with Will’s discovery, which I’m happy to pass on, that clementines are very agreeable balls for tossing around the house. They have a nice bounce and they’re very easy to spot when they roll under furniture. And then you can eat them.

Weekend Diary:
Saturday, 18 June 2011

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

What I’d very much like to know is how many New Yorkers bought tickets to one of the Royal Danish Ballet’s six performances here this week because Jennifer Homans’s chapter about August Bournonville, in her magisterial but deliciously readable history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels, inspired them to do so. It can’t have been just me.

Kathleen liked the evening’s offerings very much, although when she told me that the company’s disciplined attention to detail reminded her of the title character in Coppélia (a mechanical doll), I had to quibble. I saw some of the most fluid, “natural” dancing ever. It was as though the members of the RDB spend their lives offstage as well as on- leaping effortlesly into the ether and floating across the room on point.

What’s specatacular about the Royal Danish Ballet is the complete absence of the spectacular. The dancing is very fine, and often intoxicating, but it is never showy. The reason why I think there were other Homans readers in the audience is that it would otherwise be suspicious for New Yorkers so vociferously to applaud understatement. This was a crowd that had a lot more in common with chamber music aficionados than with the opera crowd.

We saw La Sylphide, which I must confess to having confused, inattentively, with Les Sylphides (until Jennifer Homans straightened me out), and Act III of Napoli. or, as it is called in the program, Napoli, Act III. I suppose that the RDB must mount complete performances of August Bournonville’s Napoli ever now and then, out of professional courtesy, but most serious balletomanes will go to their graves without seeing more of this work than its final act, which, like the end of Nutcracker and Act IV of The Sleeping Beauty, is a chain of “characteristic dances” and showpieces without any narrative content. Back in my radio days, when I was first learning about ballet (a subject that I knew absolutely nothing about until I was twenty-three), Napoli, Act III was the cheesiest ballet in the repertoire, just on the basis of its title. First, Naples. Naples as imagined by a Danish ballet master. Stop right there. Second, the truncation — the third act performed “out of context.” That was then. Tonight, I sat through the first half of NA3 with slightly detached interest; the characteristic dances didn’t strike me as characteristic of much more than the Bournonville style. But then somebody clapped a tambourine, and the tarantella got going. What an orgy! I realize that that is not the best word to describe an ensemble that even at its most energetic never stumbled into incoherence. But most energetic is exactly what it was, a pile-up of couplings that amounted, almost, to one too many birthday presents. And then there was the finale!

La Sylphide is the first in a line of more sophisticated ballets, notably Giselle but also including, cousin-German-wise, Swan Lake; and it’s easy to reduce its mild, pantomimed melodrama to “precursor” status. But what I remember about it isn’t elementary, because the principals, Caroline Cavallo and Mads Blangstrup, were great actors as well as gifted dancers. Great actors can sell just about anything, and that’s why Mr Blangstrup’s Scottish bridegroom and Ms Cavallo’s elfin temptress blasted a niche in my memory whereby I will recall this evening. Being gifted dancers, they were able to act with their bodies, without speech. They showed me how an art form that imposes silence on its practitioners can be as eloquent as a Shakespearean monologue 

Weekend Open Thread: School For Wits

Saturday, December 19th, 2009


For the Weekend: Dutch Treat

Saturday, August 15th, 2009


Press & Discuss: Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg?