Archive for February, 2012

Gotham Diary:
End of Winter
29 February 2012

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

And so we come to the end of winter, Winter 2012. Of all the cold months, February is the one that has nothing else going for it: it is simply wintry. There are no festivities to distract us from the awful weather, or from the promise of better. (This year, there were daffodils.) February does not even have the energy to last as long as the other months, although this year it was only one day shy of a normalish quota. I am always glad to see the end of February.

February 2012 will go down as the month in which I dove into the work of two completely new artists, Edward St Aubyn and Jean Dujardin. One would have been enough; two was deranging. As if to tie the experience in a pretty bow, Mr Dujardin’s Oscar win was followed yesterday by the arrival of A Clue to the Exit, the novel that Mr St Aubyn published in 2000. The little that has been written about this book will tell you that it is “about consciousness,” and maybe it is; maybe it will bog down in the second half just as On the Edge does and read like a brilliant undergraduate’s tour d’horizon of esoteric wisdom. But so far it has been increasingly funny. The narrator is the usual Aubynian fuck-up but his big problem inverts the usual Aubynian situation: he has six months to live (he’s down to five by now), and in order to write something pure and valuable (he has been a highly-rewarded hack) he must divest himself of his anaesthetizing millions. The other thing that’s funny is St Aubyn’s zest for self-parody.When he writes of a sex scene that “[w]e thrashed like marlin caught on the hooks of each other’s unforgiving genitals,” you know — if you’ve been reading as much St Aubyn as I have in one month — that the author is skewering his own verbal virtuosity. You wish that David Foster Wallace had allowed himself moments of such gleeful shamelessness.

Once I’d managed to put down A Clue to the Exit, which gripped me in its tentacles even as I extracted it from the mailing envelope, I thought that I would see what other people have to say about the book on the Internet. I typed in the author’s name and the title, all in quotation marks, and started sifting through the pile of bookseller pages. There was a Guardian review that I read, and a Telegraph review that I didn’t. Three pages in, I finally came across a link to a blog. Unfortunately, the blog was the one that you are reading. The link carried me to an entry in which I mentioned A Clue to the Exit, but of course I had not read it at the time and so had nothing to say about it: what a way to let oneself down. But another nearby link carried me to John Self’s blog, Asylum (silent lately), and his page about At Last, which came out almost a year ao in Britain. Sure enough, his entry and my entry had one thing in common, something that we share with every discussion of At Last that I’ve come across, the “surge in demand” sentence about Emily Price. I should like to know what Edward St Aubyn thinks about the massive popularity among his readers of a sentence about a character who flits through his pentalogy in the space of one or two paragraphs.

***

 

Gotham Diary:
Canada
28 February 2012

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Alice Munro has a new story in this week’s New Yorker. Do you think that she means to present Canada as a land of horror? Every time I read one of her stories, I am so glad that I don’t live in Canada that I am actually glad that I do live in the United States. No other writer has this effect.

Part of it is the landscape, which in her hands appears to have been abandoned for hundreds of years — and for a good reason; you imagine that it must have been one long Wisconsin Death Trip when people lived there. There is the stale, provincial air that hangs about the small towns but about Toronto, too — always a Toronto of fifty years ago.

Then there are the men, the men who matter. They make up the rules and the women have to live with them. The women don’t much mind, because they want to live with the men. Munro’s fiction is shot through with a streak of feminine masochism that precludes revenge no matter how abruptly the oppression is eventually put to an end. In the current story, a gifted and devoted country doctor is revealed to be an impervious autocrat at home who keeps his childless wife in a cage of intimidation. “She was used to holding back until she was sure that my uncle had said all that he meant to say.”

Of course, it would have been quite different, my mother said, if they’d had children.

Imagine that. Children. Getting in Uncle Jasper’s way, whining for a corner of their mother’s attention. Being sick, sulking, messing up the house, wanting food he didn’t like.

Impossible. The house was his, the choice of menus his, the radio and television programs his. Even if he was at his practice next door, or  out on a call, things had to be ready for his approval at any moment.

The representation of children in the second paragraph, as dreary nuisances, is really rather shocking, but you don’t sense that until you look it over a second time. The first time you read the story, “Haven,” you read it through Uncle Jasper’s eyes.

I was braced for “Haven” to be one of the thrilling ghastly stories like “Wenlock Edge,” but no violence of any kind is inflicted on the narrator. The doctor behaves with an odd, almost passive rudeness when he returns from a meeting one night to discover that his wife has been entertaining not only the next-door neighbors but the his own estranged sister, a concert violinist, and the other two members of her trio. His refusal to acknowledge this woman in any way save as a source of wonder that anyone would pay to hear the sort of music that she plays — nothing personal, mind — is also shocking, but, again, only the second time. The first time, you’re just glad that Uncle Jasper doesn’t break anything. 

No doubt I lead a very protected life, but I always find talk of “good and evil” not only overwrought but simplistic. Good people — and Munro won’t permit us to deny that, on balance, Uncle Jasper is a good man — do terrible things, and, what’s worse, they feel good about it, perfectly entitled to behave badly, as Uncle Jasper clearly does at the end of “Haven,” when he imposes his own choice of organist on his sister’s funeral. There’s some question as to just who might object to this maneuver, since the sister herself is presumably beyond caring. But just because there’s no victim, that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been an outrage.   

***

TK

Gotham Diary:
Hangover
27 February 2012

Monday, February 27th, 2012

The real reason why, left to myself, I wouldn’t watch the Academy Awards is that it is wearing to cry for three hours. The tears began pouring when Morgan Freeman took to the stage, at the very beginning, and intoned pious words about why we all love the movies. I didn’t particularly share his sentiments, nor did I agree with the darklighted movie stars (Edward Norton, Julia Roberts, et alia) who shared what it means to go to the movies, but I wept all the same, because the movies are sacred. They’re sacred because they’re humane, incredibly humane: they show us what it looks like to be good and to be bad (when nobody’s looking), and they make overpowering suggestions about what it feels like to be in love. We didn’t know ourselves very well before the movies; we had to make the best of philosophers’ dull plausibilities. So of course I am moved to tears when I connect with the movies. Usually, it’s five or ten minutes in a dark theatre. Three hours, and in spite of Billy Crystal, is exhausting.

Billy Crystal needs work. Surgeons ought to undo the facelifting that has so far made Billy Crystal look like the real girl that Lars outgrew in that movie. Mr Crystal ought to look more like Jack Benny, as you’d agree if you were old enough to remember Jack Benny. And speaking of Ryan Gosling, why didn’t he win something last night? He turned in three excellent performances last year, each quite unlike the other two. (In Drive, he was almost as silent as Jean Dujardin.) And where was Rachel McAdams? When will Ryan and Rachel make another movie together, this one directed by Woody Allen?

I’ll have to check this out with pen and pencil, but it seemed that, if I had seen a movie in any given category (Sound Mixing, for example), then the movie that won the award was one that I’d seen. This was largely owing to Hugo‘s sweep of production-value awards, but it still felt odd. This meant that the three Best Picture nominees that I hadn’t seen didn’t win a thing. And five of the six that I did see each won at least one award, the exception being Moneyball.  

***

Still to come: Dianne Reeves and Rose Macaulay. I just need a little while to wonder what Limitless 2 is going to be like with Jean Dujardin.

***

And Wanderlust, too. I saw it on Friday morning, largely because I was desperate to get back on schedule. I expected it to be worse than it was; the surprise was the sharpness of its jabs at American barbarism. I shouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Mike Judge had something to do with it.

Take the horrible brother, Rick (Ken Marino). No aristocrat of the ancien régime believed himself more entitled to behave rudely, or to engage in ostentatious displays of contempt, than this pig. It’s almost too obvious and literal to be symbolic that Rick has found success in the portable toilet business. When his wife (Michaela Watkins) decides that she can’t stand him anymore, you smile an all’s-right-with-the-world smile. You’re still chuckling over her introducing her margarita maker as her best friend.

Then there are the daytime newscasters on a local Atlanta station. They, too, are pretty swinish, although they’re much better-humored than Rick. They’re also pretty dumb. Between their juvenility and the architectural nightmare of Rick’s gated community, Atlanta is rendered as a fairly unattractive town.

Then there are the hppies at the commune where most of the movie is set, persisting in behavior that was kind of exciting for twenty minutes in 1967 but which most of us, even those who weren’t aven alive — whose parents were wee bairns in 1967 — have spent the past fifty years recognizing as socially obnoxious. This is the part of the movie that triggers complaints about predictability: Wanderlust may just be the last movie in which the counterculture is satirized. It comes across as fairly excruciating here, bearable only because of the trials that it presents to George and Linda (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston), a maxed-out, arguably mismatched couple.

You can imagine George and Linda agreeing to give marriage a try, just as they give New York a try and making documentaries a try and living in a “microloft” a try. Linda is especially big on giving things a try. But in future I would advise the actors to play siblings, not spouses. Their wiring is utterly different. Ms Aniston has always made things look easy, even enduring the heartbreak of Brad; the contrast of Mr Rudd’s eagerness to please makes her look inattentive, if not insensible. Not that I’m complaining. Their failure to connect is tragic, another one of the dark things about this movie. George and Linda are probably going to stick it out for life, bless ’em. But when they’re not laughing they will always be on different pages.

Then there’s Malin Akerman. How did her agent let her take that part? Very pretty blondes with open, guileless faces ought never, ever to let the subject of free love be entertained in their presence, much less bring it up themselves. When they do, you think: do her parents know about this movie? I’m surprised that Linda Lavin (who’s dandy as a Manhattan realtor) didn’t intervene. And while we’re on the subject of parents, poor Joe Lo Truglio’s! Our son, the nudist winemaker/novelist. I almost forgot. Wanderlust forgot, hurls a generous handful of broken glass at the publishing industry.

Alan Alda replays, with somewhat diminished vigor, his part in Flirting With Disaster. I didn’t recognize Justin Theroux, the seducer and snake who gets to pronounce the flower child’s motto, “I love you all, but I love me more.”

***

Rose Macaulay, whose astonishing Towers of Trebizond has the most surprising, quite gut-wrenching ending — imagine Barbara Pym’s coming up with a “gut-wrenching” finale, infused with the absurd disastrousness of Evelyn Waugh — will have to wait. I will say this: I can’t imagine anyone under forty enjoying the book. I’m having lunch with a friend, in a day or so, who read the book when it was new, in 1956 (I was eight at the time, and not reading much beyond the Hardy Boys). I can’t imagine what she made of it, so I wasn’t surprised to hear her say that she didn’t remember a thing about it. How, decorously, can I suggest that, just perhaps, she’s old enough for it now? 

Weekend Note:
A Bundle of Letters
25-26 February 2012

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

Saturday

Not once, since I began this Web log in 2004, have I seriously considered changing its title, or abandoning it for something altogether different. I have poked and prodded and picked up and dropped off, but the idea of writing something more or less amusing every day has remained the governing idea, however imperfectly realized. Not once — until today. This morning, I received a letter from a friend who, not meaning it as an unqualified compliment, wrote that reading the site gives her “a feeling of looking in on your private letters.”

This had never occurred to me, perhaps understandably, but I knew at once that I was delighted to have had that effect. I can imagine nothing more arresting than coming across a cache of someone’s letters, presumably somebody dead, not for discretion’s sake but simply to rule out the possibility of knowing the writer in any other way. My favorite sort of book in the world is the collected exchange — the correspondence of Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, for example, or that between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh — and the less edited it is, the more I like it. I love the slow adjustment to the light as, over time, I learn more about the people and things that the writer is talking about. Personal gossip doesn’t interest me as much as book talk does, and when the writer has seen a movie or a work of art that means something to me, I’m thrilled by the connection, even when — especially when — we disagree about it. The wonderful thing about not being able to get to know the writer in any other way is that, unless I take up writing myself, there is no way for the writer to get to know me.

So it would appear that staying up-to-date on Daily Blague entries risks reading the material very prematurely.

Sunday

What struck me most about Will’s birthday party this morning (nine weeks closer to Will’s complete understanding of such an event) was how quiet it was. Will and his favorite pals played with almost conspiratorial silence, and while there were a few bursts of tears, there was no gratuitous screaming. When Will and Walt explored the legwork of of the long folding tables in the Community Room of the 14th Street Y, they lacked only slide rules for the compleat engineering look.

***

Last night, I watched Made in Dagenham, Nigel Cole’s movie about women workers striking for equal pay at a Ford plant outside London, in 1968. I rented it in order to see Andrea Riseborough again. What a range she has covered in the latter two of her three feature films: from beehive-topped, fast-talking cockney to the utterly soignée Wallis Simpson of Baltimore.  I’d have bet that there is nothing that Ms Riseborough can’t do on the strength of W./E. alone, but now I know.

There are many other stars in Made in Dagenham — Rosamund Pike, Bob Hoskins, Geraldine James, Miranda Richardson, and Rupert Graves, just to name a few who come to mind — but the movie belongs to Sally Hawkins, who plays Rita O’Grady, a harried wife, mother, and seamstress (she and her colleagues stitch the interior upholstery) who surprises everyone, herself included, when she exclaims “Bollocks!” at a meeting in which she was not supposed to say anything. Scorched by the condescending brutality of her son’s teacher, Rita refuses to sit by while the Ford executive played by Mr Graves and a complaisant union boss make a deal that effectively deep-sixes the women’s protest. It’s a rousing good show, but it’s also a somewhat sour reminder that the Equal Rights Amendment never became the law of the land on this side of the pond.

***

Left to myself, I probably wouldn’t watch the Academy Awards this evening. The exploitation of passive cognitive systems that goes by the name of “advertising” will one day, I hope, rank with the Spanish Inquisition as a Bad Thing That We Don’t Do Anymore, and I can hardly bear to endure it. I’m also mildly offended by the awards program’s pretense that it is deepening our acquaintance with the stars. Bollocks! (Neither of these objections is new, but both have intensified over recent weeks, as I’ve been mulling over the importance of not wasting time on worthless, unrelaxing pastimes.) But Kathleen intends to tune in, and as I have no intention of asking her to wear earphones, I might as well sit alongside her.

I lazily assumed that I’d seen seven of the Best Picture nominees. I reached this inference by counting the three that I hadn’t seen and subtracting them from an imaginary total of ten. In fact, of course, there are only nine nominees, and I’ve only seen six of them. The three that I haven’t seen, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,
The Tree of Life, and War Horse, are movies that I probably won’t see unless one of them wins the award. Well, I probably won’t see War Horse even if it does win, because of an aversion to the films of Steven Spielberg, which always leave me feeling exploited and soiled. I’ll  be happy to see any of the other nominees win, except maybe not so happy if it’s Moneyball, which I liked but considered inferior to Warrior.

I sort of hope that Jean Dujardin wins as Best Actor, because that might have very interesting consequences — look at what Marion Cotillard has been up to. But George Clooney deserves it, and I sort of also hope that he wins.

Gotham Diary:
Dim
24 February 2012

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Last night, we went to a preview of the new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (hereinafter “the Museum” — but you knew that), “The Steins Collect.” There are many points at which this show might engage my interest and attention, but they all fail. I don’t like the collection, I don’t like the Steins, and I don’t much like the show. The whole affair is a sealed tomb. I mention it not to complain, and certainly not to say bad things about the art and its collectors, but only to regret that such things happen.

There are one or two or three very nice paintings. There’s a Matisse from 1904 or so (I neglected to carry a notebook) of a wrought-silver chocolate pot that flirts, frankly beautifully, with Chardin. There’s a voluptuous still life by Hans Purrmann, Matisse’s student for a while, that I took at first to be the master’s, largely because of its handling of a textile. There’s a very sweet little view of The Bay of Nice, again by Matisse, that seems to quiver and tremble as if a chick is about to peck its way out — a chick by the name of David Hockney. There is a very curious Lady With a Fan, an early Picasso that’s apparently at the National Gallery in Washington, but neither Kathleen nor I could recall seeing it before; with the hand not holding the fan, the calmly stern woman, shown in profile, makes a Buddhist gesture of peace. This comports uneasily with her downtown manner; she really seems to be saying “Come back some other time, if you must.”

Lady With a Fan is not a particularly pretty picture, but it’s an interesting one.  There are quite a lot of pretty pictures that aren’t terribly interesting, all of them drily painted landscape sketches by Matisse. There are numerous images of Gertrude Stein, all of which made me wonder, “Who was this woman?” Overall, though, “The Steins Collect” mounts the largest array of dim and dull paintings that I have ever seen. I can’t imagine actually living with them all.

***

We’re still too close to modernism — of which Gertrude Stein was certainly a significant exponent in at least two ways, as a writer and as a critic — to judge it. There is a gash of internal hostility within the movement itself, pitting authoritarian simplifiers against playful futurologists. Seen in another light, this was a battle between totalitarians and anarchists. Neither totalitarians nor anarchists take much interest in the individual differences that sustain a rich society; on the contrary, the one thing that totalitarians and anarchists agreed about was a disapproval of individual differences, which they glibly dismissed as “narcissism.”

Gertrude Stein lived an anarchist’s life — easy to do if you’ve got plenty of money, but impossible without it unless you have a taste for explosives — yet her writing anneals the hermetic with the folksy, a combination that reminds me of Joseph Stalin. I tend to feel that Gertrude Stein ought to be interesting, but isn’t. This can be cxplained, perhaps, by the fact that Edith Sitwell got to me first.

Gertrude Stein assembled her collection in a ten-year period that came to an end on the eve of the Great War. It was during this time that Picasso underwent the full round of modernist convulsions. After the war, he emerged, in an intriguing parallel with his contemporary, Igor Stravinsky, as a neo-classicist. Modern art became a thing of the past, an achievement awaiting the world’s universal appreciation. I see Gertrude Stein, in her apartment at 27, Rue de Fleurus (near the Luxembourg Gardens), as a kind of hen, sitting on her brood of masterpieces, most of which turned out not to be. I have only one question: what would color photographs of her apartment have told us? The images of the flat that we do have suggest an unhygeinic griminess that well-brought-up Americans can’t have been comfortable with, unless of course they were making a point of it. The pictures on the walls of the Museum’s Tisch Galleries tell us that, Matisse aside, color was mistrusted by these artists and their patrons.

***

“The Steins Collect” is of course not just about Gertrude. Her brothers, Leo and Michael, collected as well — it was Michael and his wife Sarah who were partial to Matisse. I can imagine studying this show with a focus on who owned what. But first you’d have to care about something, either the Steins or these paintings, but I simply don’t care about enough of them.

In the giftshop, there were copies of  Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, bits of which I read in The New Yorker. I want to read the book entire (it’s not long) while the Steins show is up; maybe I’ll learn to see something new. I’ll always be happy to see Matisse’s Still Life with Chocolate Pot again, even if, painted in 1900, it falls outside the modernist overhaul. It’s a souvenir of a way of life that was about to crushed in every dimension, but also a beacon that guides us to the possibility of recreating civil life, as well as a herald of the bourgeois regularity that Gertrude Stein never forswore.

Gotham Diary:
Another Star
23 February 2012

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Well, I just can’t. I can’t drop everything and check out Andrea Riseborough, luminous, fascinating, frighteningly talented movie star though she may be. Not that there’s much to check up on — two feature films seem to be about it so far, and neither one promises to be in the least like W./E, Madonna’s sumptuous tour of the Duchess of Windsor’s gilded cage. In the past six weeks or so, I’ve dropped everything twice, once for Jean Dujardin and once for Edward St Aubyn. The excitement has exhausted me.

Here’s what I took away from W./E., Windsor-wise. Wallis Warfield was a party girl; she knew as well anybody what a snazzy drinks party ought to be like for people who didn’t have to worry about respectability — or who didn’t think they did. She had a keen sense of a certain kind of fun, and was very good at clowning around without lapsing into gaucherie.

At a certain point in time and space, Wallis found herself in the orbit of an extraordinarily chic host, whose parties everyone wanted to attend because he brought to his natural position, that of the Prince of Wales, the up-to-date glamour of a film star, David Windsor. (And he was a film star; all you have to do is look at the newsreels.) Wallis wanted very much to go to David’s parties, and she eventually “swung” it. I think that she would have been happy with that — a permanent place on the prince’s, and then the king’s, private guest list. She would have been happy for a while, anyway.

But the prince fell in love with her, and his one sovereign act was to make her his own and keep her forever. Wallis hadn’t counted with that possibility.

Whether this account accords with “what really happened” between the eventual Duke and Duchess doesn’t really interest me. “What really happened” was presumably beyond the understanding of the parties themselves in the rush of event. Madonna tells a very plausible tale about a woman who was probably, like all the others in history (especially political history), not the witch that she was made out to be. The movie is unconcerned by political conundrums, such as whether David would have made a Good King. The film is not very interested in what David himself was like — a wise choice. I expect that Madonna’s title is intended to strike us with its alternative, E./W. Ew.

It will take a while to sort out how we feel about the Abbie Cornish story line, which concerns a modern-day New Yorker called Wally. (This part of the film is set in 1998, for interesting reasons.) I’m not going to go into that now, except to say that I have always liked Ms Cornish. She is a bit strapping for someone with an obsession with Wallis Simpson, but that’s probably intentional: you can’t be too petite to play the Duchess of Windsor. If the film wisely expects us to know the outlines of the Abdication Crisis, it is not nearly so tidy about Wally’s romantic life. But Oscar Isaac and Richard Coyle are engaging costars for Abbie Cornish, and I expect that a second viewing, with the mystification out of the way, will make it easier to judge Madonna’s achievement.

For the moment, I counsel anyone who can’t make up his or her mind about W./E. to fix on one great moment, a performance that merits showering Andrea Riseborough with every known award, including the Garter. In an episode labeled “1972,” Wallis asks the dying David if he would like her to read to him. He pulls down his oxygen mask and asks her to dance. So she does: she does the Twist. She does the Twist the way fiercely fun-seeking glamour girls of the middle of the last century did the Twist, with the economy and verve of Margot Fonteyn. The scene could not be more Vogue-ready if Diana Vreeland had conceived, shot, and danced it herself.

And yet it is also an utterly timeless dance, as hieratically erotic as anything that Cleopatra did for Caesar. Commanding a woman to dance for you has been one of the hallmarks of the powerful male since powerful males were introduced. Beneath the black-helmeted carapace of her unflagging toilette, Andrea Riseborough’s Wallis packs millennia of female professionalism and distaste. She even manages to enjoy herself: she knows exactly how to decorate her twisting paisley top with glittering sequins of ridicule. She is like a Tosca who doesn’t need to kill the man before whom the world, would you believe it, trembled. I’ll be damned if this doesn’t go down as one of the most notable clips in cinema history.

***

As we sat at our table at Veselka yesterday, I couldn’t stop asking myself why we didn’t do this more often, Will and I. He took his seat without a booster and behaved very, very well, considering that he is only two! I must insist that he behaved very well by anybody’s standards. True, he treated the flatware as percussion instruments for a while, but he wasn’t very noisy and he seemed to be well aware that knives and forks can hurt you if you don’t know what you’re doing. True, he refused all but the tiniest morsels of the grilled cheese sandwich, preferring to eat my frites. He was on his feet for a short time, while we waited for another order of French fries, but he didn’t bother other customers or get in the waitstaff’s way. More objective witnesses might have made a different evaluation of his behavior, but I thought that Will was an angel, and I wondered why we didn’t do this more often.

First, Will is usually at day care, or, as I call it, “in school.” School is closed this week for some reason, and alternative arrangements needed tweaking at the last minute; I was only too happy to step in, especially after Tuesday’s terrors. The second reason why we don’t “do this more often” is that Will has only recently returned from a spell of refusing to sit at table. Intoxicated by ever-widening capacities for running, jumping, scrambling, climbing, and discovering what he can and cannot squeeze himself in to, Will was not disposed, for several months, to sit still when eating. Eating itself did not interest him much. Kathleen and I would gaze wistfully at the “Mr Dinner Party” picture of him at eight months, when he would happily spend an hour in his little seat, clipped on to the table, and eat just about everything (especially buttered rolls). We would shake our heads at the passing of time: Will had certainly outgrown his Mr Dinner Party days. It would take our breath away: how could the autumn of 2010 seem so distant?  

Gotham Diary:
Abyssal
22 February 2012

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

What happened yesterday is still too painful to talk about — and, besides, it didn’t happen yesterday, I just found out about it. It seemed, for several hours, to be so grossly awful that I took a Xanax to calm down, and I never take Xanax unless I’m on a plane. When I confess that it all had to do with iTunes, you’ll stifle a laugh; how could I be so upset about that?

I’ll answer obliquely. The other day, I had lunch with an English friend whom I often pester for pronunciations. Having surprised her with “tassles” for “Lascelles,” I bore her gentlest of rebukes for “Hairwood” instead of “Harwood.” She asked why I cared; “Americans never do.” I muttered something about wanting not to seem a fool, but completely forgot until later the taproot of the urge, which was planted during my radio days. In my day, if you wanted to get a job at your college classical radio station (and there were many such), you were given a long list of foreign names to read aloud. It was a sifting of shibboleths. If you said Bate Hoven and Moats Art instead of what unlettered people say, you had a chance at the job. Curiously, there were no British names on the list. One of the earls of Harewood might have written a book about opera, but he didn’t write any music (or, if he did…). And everyone can say “Elgar.”

Now some figures: since June 2011. I have added 20 gigs of new music to my iTunes library, but I have modified — updated and improved the “info” — on 70 gigs’ worth of files. When all that and more seemed lost yesterday, I needed a pill.

***

Today, I’m heading downtown for a bit of impromptu babysitting. It’s a good day for it; clear and not too cold. Will and I will go to the park. He has recently become a little less wild, less drunk on his new powers of locomotion. Well, they’re not new anymore; he’s been running around for nearly half his life by now. One of his favorite words is “Come,” usually spoken with an outstretched palm.

What I’d have done with the day to myself… well, providentially, I really was going to go to the movies. I was going to see W./E.; I’m dying to watch Laurence Fox stutter, and to see if Andrea Riseborough is as good as Anthony Lane says she is.

***

Last night, in any case, was brightened by a new book, The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macaulay. I  gave Rose Macaulay a try a million years ago and it didn’t take, but a blogger whom I follow, Levi Stahl of I’ve Been Reading Lately (I believe that he’s attached to the University of Chicago Press) wrote up the recent NYRB edition so enthusiastically (and well) that I had to give it a try. I’m liking it enormously, not least because there’s a priggish prelate by the name of Chantry-Pigg. More, though, for the dry perfection of the tone:

But aunt Dot could only think how Priam and Hecuba would have been vexed to see the state it had all got into and no one seeming to care any more. She thought the nations ought to go on working at it and dig it all up again, and perhaps do some reconstruction, for she belonged to the reconstruction school, and would have liked to see Troy’s walls and towers rising once more against the sky like a Hollywood Troy, and the wooden horse standing beside them, opening mechanically every little while to show that it was full of armed Greeks.

But I thought there were enough cities standing about the world already, and that those which had disappeared had better be left alone, lying under the grass and asphodel and brambles, with the wind sighing over them and in the distance the sea where the Greek ships had lain waiting ten years for Trojam incensam, and behind them Mount Ida, from which the unfair and partial gods had watched the whole affair.

Pretty super stuff.

Gotham Diary:
Reminder
21 February 2012

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Oy! I get to the computer bright and early this morning, and what do I see? A blue screen! Well, perhaps not the fabled nightmare blue screen, the message from the beyond that used to mean:”Fun’s over — you’ll be out of commission for a week at least.” No, it was just the “HP Invent” screen that comes on when I reboot. The machine was stuck there. I had no idea why. Why I had no idea why is the actual mystery.

After a bit of poking and restarting and whatnot, I finally gave up and went to work on the laptop. Which was a drag, but I could manage; I’d just have to download all recent images from my camera, so that I could use the image above (a shopwindow on 57th Street). Drat — I didn’t have an extra cable. When I came back in to fetch the cable from the stalled computer, it was entangled with the iPod cable. Before unraveling them, I detached the new Nano that I was setting up late last night.

You know what’s going to happen next; you know how these fairy tales work. You saw the fatal words, the new Nano that I was setting up late last night. What a world of mischief there is in attempts to set things up late at night!

I detached the new Nano, and the computer sprang to life. Here’s what appears to have happened: in the middle of the night, Microsoft updated the Internet Explorer browser. When the computer was instructed to reboot, it got stuck when it couldn’t decide what the iPod was doing there.

***

It reminded me of the days when something like that happened at least once a week. Even without my help. But, d’you know what? I don’t want to think about the old days. The old days were terrible. The present day isn’t all that great, really, but it’s things are a hell of a lot more dependable.

That said, I long to be free of WordPress. Which is probably why I don’t want to remember the bad old days. Things are tough enough as it is.  

***

Without the computer snafu, I don’t know what I’d have written about first thing this morning. Every spare moment yesterday went to reading The Vault.  This involved long stretches of poring over the A-Z(ed) and reacquainting myself with the roadways of St John’s Wood, a part of London that I’ve never been to.

I have to re-read A Sight for Sore Eyes now. There was no need to search the Internet to establish a connection between the two books; the dust jacket of The Vault plainly announces it — on the back, the part that I never read. Here’s how firmly I ignore the puffery on the backs of novels: I was astonished, one time, to learn that the friend with whom I was discussing a book had himself written a blurb for it, which indeed appeared on the dust jacket. That was a bit embarrassing.

What drove me crazy about not having A Sight for Sore Eyes to hand yesterday was trying to remember how Teddy Brex, the hero/villain of the piece, wound up in the coal pit at the end. That’s of course what stuck in my mind about the book: the horrible end of Teddy Brex. Happily, Ruth Rendell dropped enough hints throughout The Vault to jog my recollection, and the answer came to me just a few pages before Wexford slipped on the wet leaves of Virginia creeper in the yard of Orcadia Cottage and figured it out.

***

The new Nano is tiny, barely larger than a postage stamp, less than half the size of the one that it’s to replace. It’s probably the last Nano that I shall ever buy. My next purchase will be another classic iPod. I will put all of my playlists on that one, or as many as will fit.

I now have two distinct music systems. Each room has its own stereo setup, with DVD/CD player, amplifier, and reasonably good speakers. Each of these has an iPod dock as well, so that an iTunes playlist can be played in one room with really good sound. The other system is a network of three Klipsch players, no longer manufactured, that connect wirelessly. The connection is not very reliable, and on Sundays it tends to break up with annoying frequency; there must be some sort of interference from cellphones or other devices. But this is the system, for all it’s faults, that’s usually playing, because it provides the background music that lubricates my movements from room to room.

I could, of course, stick a Nano in my pocket and wear headsets; that’s what young people do. I wonder if they’ll still rely on headsets when they get to be my age. There comes a point when you’re no longer comfortable in that bubble of sound, any more than you would be if, wherever you looked, all you could see was a movie projected onto your eyeglasses. There is also the faint absurdity of private music in a private home with only one person in residence. The playlists that I feed through the Klipsch system have also been designed not to bother Kathleen — no booming requiems or arresting rhythmic irregularities. The background music is an important part of the apartment’s look and feel. 

Someday, in better times, it will a lot easier than it is now to compile playlists of classical music. iTunes isn’t designed for it, not at all. If there is an app for classical-music library management, I’ve never heard of of it. Who would use it, besides me an perhaps a thousand other people on earth? But that’s what better times will bring: powerful apps that are easily created and tailored to one user’s needs.

As distinct from the “better times” in which everyone learns to be happy with the same handful of resources. The better times of Idiocracy.

Weekend Note:
Set
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.)

Gotham Diary:
Check Your Tuning
17 February 2012

Friday, February 17th, 2012

The hibernating has me a bit worried. I can’t get up in the morning, and all I want to do is read. I don’t play music much. If I’m lucky enough, I congratulate myself upon the felicity of not having to go outside. I can’t say that I’m particularly tired, or otherwise afflicted. Kathleen, who is not, for the moment, concerned — if I’m still loitering in bed two weeks from now, then we’ll call the doctor — takes a retrospective view: I’m recuperating. Recuperating from what? Recuperating from convalescing from a holiday of colds and mourning? What I feel rather is that I’m storing up energy for something momentous. This is not a good feeling. I hope that Kathleen is right.

All about the apartment, there are signs of a stall: an unpacked shopping bag, a stack of DVDs that ought to be put away somewhere, an old picture frame that I have to ask Kathleen about (repair or toss?). In the bathroom this morning, I was confronted by a roll of toilet paper on the counter by the sink, and an empty box of Kleenex. In the kitchen, the ice bin was empty. These little jobs ordinarily have to wait until I’ve done my morning writing, but I didn’t trust myself to get to them later. I took care of them before I sat down. But I stopped short of replacing the shower-curtain liner, even though the replacement liner has been lying on the bathroom counter for nearly three months.

Yesterday, I came home from lunch with a friend, changed into dry clothes, and sat in the bedroom and read. I read for hours. I read an entire novel, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Spell. It put me under a spell, but I was a willing subject. The hero, Alex Nichols, is a very nice man. Although beautiful, he is buttoned-down and very shy. He likes his job overseeing pension funds at the Foreign Office. He is 36 or 37, and heartbroken by the defection of his boyfriend, who after a two-year relationship up and moved out, claimed, we soon learn, by another man. Alex is deeply demoralized at the beginning, but Hollinghurst makes sure that your pity never idles into contempt. At an awkward weekend house party, Alex meets somebody new, and falls under his spell. You know it can’t work, but, again, Hollinghurst steers you away from clucking disapprovingly and deriding Alex for not sharing your misgivings. You have to find out how Alex will bear up under the inevitable second helpings of wretchedness.

Here’s how:

This second failure was a shocking reinforcement of the first. And yet he had to admit that there was something ambiguously easier about it too: he already knew the lesson, he knew the bereft amazement of finding that you had unwittingly had your last fuck, your last passionate kiss, your last taxi-ride hand-in-hand in the gloom; and he knew too that on both occasions there had been signals, like the seen but noiseless drum-strokes of a tympanist checking his tuning.

In short, he bears up nicely.

***

 Here it is, Friday morning, and I ought to be at the movies, but that’s not happening. I was going to see W/E, Madonna’s movie about the Windsors. (In the trailer, Laurence Fox stutters at least as well as Colin Firth did in the same role.) I want to see if Andrea Riseborough is as superb as Anthony Lane says she is. And Judy Parfitt as Queen Mary — how terrifying is that! (In the trailer, her way with “a married woman!” all but curdles the film stock.) Also, there’s Abbie Cornish, who appeals to me for no special reason.

The Abdication Crisis fascinated me when I was a teenager, possibly because I was too young to understand it, but more likely because I was genuinely confused by the opposing pulls of duty and glamour. Without the glamour, there would be no story at all, nothing even as noteworthy as Prince Leopold’s dying of hemophilia and not marrying Alice Liddell. Running off to marry Wallis Simpson was clearly wrong, but what fantastic style! And then the abdication turned out to be best for England as well — probably. Had Edward VIII been a man of honor, his niece would still have succeeded him, but there might not have been a throne for her to sit on.

The one and only time that I consulted a microfilm as an undergraduate, it was to see what The New Yorker had to say about “the woman I love.” Nothing, actually — Janet Flanner’s piece (Jan 19, 1936) doesn’t mention Mrs Simpson. Here is the final paragraph, which seems to stand for the proposition that There Will Always Be An English Muddle:

Politically, the English are dualists in a manner fomerly confined to metaphysics. With their rational mind, they empower democracy, but with their emotional imagination, they still give credit, perhaps wisely, to that miracle-loving element in human beings which tends toward iconography, kings, prophets, and special beings in strange, lovely garments. This element in other lands has recently found its less monarchic outlet in Nazi trappings, Fascist fanfares, a Communism which makes a shrine of Lenin’s tomb, and, in America, a worship of cinema stars. King Edward has left the hierarchic for the romantic. He has been temporarily distrusted; it is possible that hereafter he will always be loved.

“Loved” is not quite the word for the spell that the Windsors cast.  

Gotham Diary:
Caught in the Act
16 February 2012

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Last Friday, we saw Woody Allen again, Ms NOLA and I. We had just turned the corner from 82nd Street onto Madison Avenue, and were heading south, to Crawford Doyle. With the gentlest insistence, Ms NOLA urged me to look up. (She knows that, because of ankylosing spondylitis, my eyes are usually directed at the pavement when I’m walking.) I did as bid, and there they were, Mr & Mrs, walking in our direction. As soon as I had taken them in, I dropped my gaze. It felt like an invasion of privacy to have paid any attention at all. But this time, at least, I did see him.

***

We had been coming from the Museum the first time, too. I think that we had just seen the Diane Arbus exhibit. It was snowing, heavily and quietly. I wanted a cup of tea, or perhaps I’d just bought some books at the gift shop, but in any case we kept straight on 82nd Street. It was on the Park Avenue median that Ms NOLA asked me if I’d seen him. Whom? Woody Allen. No, I hadn’t. I’d been too busy airing my latest theories about the bourgeoisie.

I remember what I was talking about because I hoped, when Ms NOLA told me whom we’d just passed, that Woody Allen hadn’t been too lost in thought to hear me carrying on as if I were re-enacting a familiar scene from one of his movies. In the middle of the day, an older man, who probably ought to be at work, discourses sagely to a pretty young woman, in whom he takes an avuncular but not ungallant interest. We might have been John Houseman and Martha Plimpton, in Another Woman. What enameled the incident with perfection was my having been too busy dispensing my wisdom to notice the passing writer and director.

Never had I felt so compleatly the New Yorker. If Woody Allen didn’t catch me in the act, it wasn’t my fault.

Gotham Diary:
Cirque de chambre
15 February 2012

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Circuses have never appealed to me. Animals don’t really interest me, and I don’t care for their smell. But it’s the human component that puts me off. In the circus, the illusion that the performing artist is having a good time — common to all the arts, even the ones that don’t involve performance; this is why everyone wants to meet artists (a mistake in most cases) — is exaggerated to the point of a smirking dare. Can you possibly be so stupid as to imagine that pleasure has anything at all to do with the clown’s leering grin?

All of this is precisely what made the circus appealing to modernists like Stravinsky, and to his sophisticated audiences, who considered themselves superior to bourgeois, fun-seeking naïveté. The pathos of circus life underlies the brittleness of Petrouchka, of course, but it was after World War I that Stravinsky made the pathos itself brittle, and never moreso than in L’Histoire de soldat, a circus-within-a-circus work that I wish I could have stayed for at last night’s ACJW recital at Weill Recital Hall. The important thing is that I got to hear the companion piece, commissioned by ACJW and Carnegie Hall, that was played before the intermission, a 25-minute work in three movements with pre-, inter-, and postludes, written by four composers as a consortium called Sleeping Giant. Had I been able to stay for the longer second part of the program — had I not had a date for Valentine’s Day dinner with my wife — I expect that I’d have found the Stravinsky interesting but slightly stale, at least after Histories, as the companion piece is called, proved to be both so interesting and so novel.

At dinner, after I’d described it, Kathleen asked me if I thought that Histories would work as a recording. I’d love to find out, but I’d have to sit through a second performance to be sure. Histories is the first piece of purely instrumental music that I’ve ever heard of, aside of course from Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, that asks the musicians to do something besides play. At one point, the four wind players left the stage for stations in the side aisles, from which they blew through their instruments so as to suggest winds or waves, although of course no suggestion at all may have been intended. It would be easy to make the staging of Histories sound silly, but in fact it was fun. That’s what makes Histories essentially unlike the work from which it draws its inspiration. Today’s younger classical-music composers are after serious fun. Nothing could be more rigorously strained out of their music than the cynicism that is always curdling the edges of Stravinsky’s work.

***

The four composers who constitute Sleeping Giant are Andrew Norman, Jacob Cooper, Robert Hornstein, and Christopher Cerrone (it seems that there are six giants in all, two of whom did not participate in this project), and their collaboration is rich enough but also sufficiently unified to suggest a new School of New York — a School of Brooklyn, more like. Born between 1979 and 1984, these musicians have evidently made a commitment to the traditional materials of classical music — the instruments, the system of notation, and of course the long list of compositions. But they are also young men of today, presumably unfamiliar with the deviceless life and as keen to have something happen right now as any gamer — or not! Although I can easily imagine a response to Histories that would dismiss it as racket and noise when it wasn’t repetitious, I’m very aware that such dismissals invariably attend early departures in new directions; you can go all the way back to Hugo’s Hernani for fine examples of fustian disapproval.  I am certainly not equipped to describe Histories in terms that would argue its musical accomplishments, but I can try to tell you why I liked it.

Histories adopts the orchestration of Stravinsky’s suite from L’Histoire du soldat: violin (Keats Dieffenbach), bass (Brian Ellingsen), clarinet (Paul Won Jin Cho), bassoon (Shelley Monroe Huang), trumpet (Nathan Botts), trombone (Richard Harris), and percussion (David Skidmore). And it borrows a few themes, or fragments of themes. But it is most like Stravinsky in that it doesn’t sound like Stravinsky at all; rather, it renews what you might call his exploration of the atomic structure of music. What is music, really, and what exactly does a trombone do? In order to engage an audience with these questions, you have to call attention to what’s going on on stage, and avoid sending the listeners off into reveries. Sleeping Giant has two principal strategies for making things fresh, and both depend on unblended textures in which, playing together, instruments nevertheless resist producing a “joint” sound. One strategy is to ripple the textures with complicated but comprehensible rhythms; another is to luxuriate reiteravely. The contributions of Mr Cooper (“Agitated, stumbling, like an endless run-on sentence”) and Mr Cerrone (“Marionettes”) exploit the first approach; Mr Hornstein’s “Recovering” embodies the second, taking a phrase from Stravinsky’s “Pastorale” and marbling it on the vibraphone.

Andrew Norman provides the prelude, the interludes, and the postludes, brief bits of amusing warm-up music that I should have appreciated better if I were more familiar with L’Histoire du soldat — my bad. His pieces established Mr Skidmore, the percussionist, as the MC/ringmaster of Histories. The proceedings were cued throughout by the scratching of a gourdlike instrument in the form of an oversized baguette. At Mr Skidmore’s signal, the other instrumentalists turned this way or that, or froze in place; it might have been dreadfully fatuous if it hadn’t been so light-handed.

The titles of the individual pieces proved to be singularly apt. Mr Skidmore’s virtuosos drumming propelled the “run-on sentence” of Mr Cooper’s composition. Did it go on for too long? I didn’t think so, but I probably would have been less patient thirty years ago. Although there wasn’t much in the way of a tune (I understate) and the drumming was insistent, I was never annoyed or eager for the piece to stop. It stopped just about where it ought to. Mr Cerrone’s “Marionettes” was exactly that, if you can imagine not little people on strings but ferocious tropical, perhaps prehistorical birds, all of them pecking at indigestible diamonds. I didn’t think of birds while the music lasted; it was only when it was over, and I asked myself, “What was that?” that the image popped into view. If you really pay attention to “Marionettes,” you probably won’t have the mental room for daydreaming about birds.

***

 This would be a good point to write about the enormous shift in sophistication that Histories registers — the shift, that is, from Stravinsky’s hyper-sophisticated faux-folk music. Sleeping Giant, for example, stands in utterly different relation to the popular; in our time, it is the popular that is overworked to the point of corruption, and classical music that is, somewhat astonishingly, artless. I shall leave it at that. I was grateful to hear Histories in the Weill, because gold-and-white neoclassical rooms are part of the classical-music tradition, too, and I am more at home in them than I would be (I expect; I haven’t been) at a downtown venue such as Le Poisson Rouge. The venue underscored the degree to which Sleeping Giant is up to something really new.

Gotham Diary:
Unthinkable
14 February 2012

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Two stories in today’s Times seem to me to ring the same bell. Joe Nocera lights into the NCAA yet again, this time in a somewhat backward fashion, by “praising” the organization for turning a blind eye on entrenched practices in amateur/collegiate hockey that it would prohibit in any other sport. Nocera believes that these practices are beneficial to young athletes and ought to be the rule, not the exception. Why aren’t they? Because they interfere with revenue streams that accrue to colleges at the athletes’ expense, that’s why. It’s pretty sickening stuff.

The other story needs even less in the way of summary. Truly independent fair-labor watchdogs are laughing at Apple’s pious decision to sponsor the investigation of the Foxconn City plants, where many of its products are made, by the Fair Labor Association — an outfit that, like the NCAA, is funded by the very enterprises that it is supposed to regulate.

(Technical point: the FLA will be investigating Apple’s supplier, not Apple itself. Ultimately, however, it is Apple’s decision to continue working with the Foxconn City folks that is on the line.)

Into those stories, stir the debate about the Volcker Rule. Bankers are complaining that the Rule will cost them inordinate amounts of money and also lead to job loss. Volcker to banks: tough noogies.

What all three of these stories have in common, I think, is that the behavior to be prevented or regulated is wicked. Not criminal, necessarily, but certainly nasty. Take sweatshop conditions, where the factory might be clean and well-ventilated but the workers are subject to a midnight wake-up call to meet the whims of some dork at Apple (happily no longer likely to be “the best businessman in the world today,” Dork-in-Chief Steve Jobs). How do you rationalize treating workers badly? Here’s how you do it in the early Twentieth Century: you exploit Chinese workers. You exploit Confucian ethics and Asian authoritarianism: They’re like that anyway. And maybe they are, but of course that’s not the point, not if you’re an American wondering what it cost to put an iPad in your hands for only $500.

The case of the NCAA is darkly fascinating. The point of the Association is to protect athletes from commercial exploitation. All well and good, but the mission was corrupted when the schools belonging to the Big Ten and the other football circuits were in a position to do the commercial exploitation. Once again, the underlying behavior, the exploitation of adolescent athletes, is obviously wicked. No matter who does it, it’s wrong! And Joe Nocera is certainly making the case that schools are exploiting their so-called student athletes. Even if the player gets a degree, what has he actually learned in school? How well are thesse “students” prepared for the lives that they will, with any luck, live to live after their bodies cease to be profit centers?   

***

As for the bankers, can anyone tell me where, on this particular moment on the Blue Planet, big banking is being done in a responsible, constructive way that does more than pour the odd bonus into punters’ pockets? South America, perhaps. You don’t hear terrible things these days about South American banking. Maybe it’s in no shape to keep up with the smart alecks in Japan, China, Europe, and the United States who have developed a broad portfolio of fucked-up strategies.

(And while we’re on the subject of smart alecks, may I suggest to Andrew Ross Sorkin that addressing Paul Volcker, even in hypothetical punditry, with a sentence beginning “C’mon…” is unbecoming? ) 

My question is this: how do you “regulate” wickedness? Is it possible?

Gotham Diary:
Gentry
13 February 2012

Monday, February 13th, 2012

It’s a little early to be writing about Adam Nicolson’s The Gentry: Stories of the English (Harper Press), not because it hasn’t come out in the United States yet, but because I haven’t read very much of it. But it’s great fun — which I probably oughtn’t to say, either, because there is nothing frivolous about Nicolson’s examination of the chancy careers of a handful of English families over the past five hundred years.  What these families have in common is the time that they spend in the way station that we call “the gentry.” Some go on to greater things, while others sink back into obscurity. In each case, a heady brew of prudence, decisiveness and luck determines the outcome. We might think of the English gentry in placid terms of teacups and hedgerows, and doubtless there are families that have held on to their mossy manors for centuries without stooping to trade or rising to nobility. Nicolson’s people, however, are adventurers almost to the same degree as seafaring pirates. A lot of what they do isn’t nice, and it certainly isn’t lawful. Lying and cheating, acts that supposedly destroy any claims to the status of gentleman, abound in most of the tales. 

They abound in most of the tales that I’ve read, anyway — about a third of them. I have a sense of why The Gentry is important, not just as a history book, but even more as a study of family life; but I’m going to let it continue to develop as I read the book.   

***

Little did I imagine, when I wrote the foregoing, that any of Nicolson’s gentry actually were pirates, but such seems to be the case with Sir John Oglander’s immediate ancestors — Sir John may have dabbled at it himself, in his youth. There is no other way to account for family holdings that, by 1610, yielded annual revenues of about £800.

During his halcyon days, between returning to an estate on the Isle of Wight from which his family had decamped after being spooked by the passing Armada, and 1632, when his adored oldest son died of smallpox, on a junket to France, Sir John Oglander was an embodiment of the ideals of husbandry. He oversaw everything that was done on and to his extensive landholdings; he also belonged to the mandarinate that governed the localities of England — until, that is, he lost his perch, as a Royalist, in the Civil War. And he wrote it all down. He kept an account book with abundant diaristic interpolations that might well find a place on the shelf next to Virgil’s Georgics.

“He was his ancestry and his posterity,” writes Nicolson — wishfully, I think. The conceit of Sir John’s life was that human affairs, if properly moderated, could be as fertile and self-renewing as tended fields and herds. But Sir John turned out to be a singularity. No one before or after him kept such account books; no one seems to have cared quite as much as Sir John did for the rhythms of agriculture. His second son, climbing up in the world, became a baronet, and in the following century the Oglanders became genuinely rich. But the main line died out in 1874, and the riches were dispersed in entails. There are still Oglanders on the Isle of Wight, but they sold Sir John’s beloved Nunwell in 1982.

In the introduction to his three Seventeenth-Century stories, Adam Nicolson writes about “The Storm over the Gentry” that raged amongst scholars and historians in the middle of the last century, as theories explaining the Civil War in terms of this or that understanding of “the gentry” were launched and shot down. Theories of any kind would have been the legacy of Marxism, and the gentry, a class without boundaries that existed nowhere but in Britain, defied Marxian analysis. That’s because the gentry don’t constitute a genuine class. People describable as “gentry” for whatever reason you like are indeed travelers from one class to another, and none of the portraits in Nicolson’s book (that I’ve read so far) demonstrates this more clearly than that of Sir John Oglander, who derived bottomless satisfaction from the faux sempiternality of his world — until his son died. Sir John’s dream of the gentry life, like his son, predeceased him. His descendants moved on to other things. And piracy, of all things, was the foundation of Sir John’s dream. It is impossible to tie up Sir John Oglander, much less the gentry as an amalgam, in any kind of theoretical bow. The only thing that the gentry always seem to have is the time in which to make agreeable stories about themselves sound convincing. 

***

About twenty years ago, I was falling in love with husbandry. My “manor” was a half-acre of heavily shaded hillside, with a problematic water supply and an openly dodgy septic system, but, as I say, I was in love, and being reasonable had nothing to do with it. The very best thing that can be said about my folly was that it was expensive; I’m not about to share the worse. Looking back, I can’t begin to grasp how I managed to justify my outlays in terms of husbandry and stewardship, but that’s because, as I’ll say again, I was in love, and when the love passed away (something that I couldn’t imagine ever happening, of course), the rationales disappeared along with it. I only thought of it today because the story of Sir John Oglander set the memories tingling.

It’s a bad idea to fall in love with a way of life. It’s imprudent, first of all; every change — and change is inevitable — comes as a disappointment. Beyond that, the beloved way of life tends to age into a bar against real happainess. As you service the idol of your self-image, you’re tied down to a way of thinking that hinders growth — and growth is inevitable, too. If you’re forced to grow within the confines of an established routine, you’ll merely grow uncomfortable.

This is why, in order to enjoy your way of life to the full, you must be indifferent to its durability.  

Weekend Note:
Freddissimo
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. 

Gotham Diary:
Beistegui
10 February 2012

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Nancy Mitford to Lady Pamela Berry, 4 January 1952:

The Cabrols & Co have asked me to write a little sketch for them to act so it is to be an old French Duke & his wife sitting in their tourist-infected château while their only child explains to them that she is now a man. Everything she says is echoed by what the tourists are saying, you can imagine how it might be funny. They are having a revue this year to replace the usual ball — Charlie [Beistegui] is supposed to have killed balls for ever.

I found this letter when I looked up Carlos Beistegui in the index to Love From Nancy, Mitfords letters. I wasn’t entirely sure that his name would appear, but of course, there it was. Nancy didn’t go to the Beistegui ball, but she did date a letter to Gladwyn Jebb “Beistegui Ball Day.” The ball was given, in the Palazzo Labia at Venice, on 3 February 1951, and it did not kill balls for ever, because Truman Capote (who didn’t go, either) made sure that it didn’t.

Now you will be asking, “WTF Charlie Beistegui?” as, indeed, I have been doing for years. According to Wikipedia, he is “not to be confused with his uncle (1863-1953), whose collection of notable 18th- and 19th-century paintings was donated to the Louvre.” You can — and ought to — check out the guest list; there are many other WTF names. 

In another letter to Lady Pamela, one that editor Charlotte Mosley declined to print in full but a passage from which appears in a footnote to the letter to Sir Gladwyn, Nancy wrote, “I suppose it is rather dotty not to go to the Ball. But a dress of the mingiest description would have been £200 — the whole thing would have cost £300 I guess, hardly worth it.”

And there you have it: why Nancy Mitford remained on the fringe of what was called Café Society. Nancy never says that she was invited to the ball, but presumably she could have got in had she wanted to go. But to spend all that money on a costume? The Mitford commitment to frivolity had its limits.

Nevertheless, Nancy Mitford knew a lot of the poeple who constituted Café Society, and their names pepper Mosley’s footnotes. Mostly the footnotes, one suspects, because Café Societals (if I may be permitted) were not much given to writing. It’s not just that writing is work, hard work even for the most fluent writers, but also that writing is such a damned disorderly experience. You write a sentence and read it and think about it and can’t decide what’s not quite right about it, because there’s a verb out that stoutly refuses to come to mind, and, what’s this, a slew of typos. You can see why people who were almost studious about their soigné appearance would find the very act of writing unpleasant. (Now we know why Edith Wharton did all her writing first thing in the morning, while still in bed.) The picture on the dust jacket of Love From Nancy shows the writer seated in her drawing room in the rue Monsieur, with a stiff-backed writing pad on her lap, braced on the arm of her bergère. It would be fun to know how much the dress that she’s wearing cost. I doubt very much that the picture tells us what Nancy looked like when she was hard at work.

When I was a boy, Elsa Maxwell’s name was in the air. Who was Elsa Maxwell? She gave parties and knew Everybody and was an important member of Café Society, whatever that was. I doubt that my parents had a much clearer picture of Maxwell than I did. Then, in the last days of my youth, Diana Vreeland, another member of Café Society (said to be dead at the time), published Allure, with lots of pictures of fat and ugly old Elsa Maxwell. Who was she?

There was no Internet in those days. You might find out a tidbit here or there, but you’d never remember it, because everything about Café Society was ephemeral, especially its history.

Which is why I bought, after much agonizing over the expense (thirty-five seconds), Thierry Coudert’s Café Society: Socialites, Patrons, and Artists 1920 to 1960 (Flammarion), at the Museum yesterday. I expect that it will be gracing a lot of Upper East Side coffee tables this season, and for many seasons to come, because it is the ideal coffee-table book. Lots of pictures, many of them iconic, with a few pages of small print about the important people. I have always always always wanted to know who Mona Bismarck was, and I have never never never been able to hold a single fact about her in my mind for longer than a gnat’s lifespan. Now I have a book. Bismarck, who was born in Louisville and who married five times (the fourth was to the Iron Chancellor’s grandson), was — beautiful and rich, and of course unhappy at the end. If they lived long enough, these people were usually unhappy.

The inspiration for Thierry Coudert’s book appears to be a sweet and jolly scrapbook kept by — guess who! — the baron and baronne de Cabrol!

Having opened Nancy Mitford’s letters, I had to go on reading a few, and I came across this gem, from a letter about her wildly successful trip (she was “lionized”) to Rome, after the publication of The Blessing.

Of course I am in a fog, know nobody’s name & said to a very grand Italian, thinking he was English “I suppose you know a lot of Italians?” which went down very badly.

I suddenly understood that the marvelous charm of the Mitford girls owes to their all having been naughty little boys in youth.

When I find out where the Café was, I’ll let you know.

Gotham Diary:
“It would be a privilege to live here.”
8 February 2012

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Here is a quick example of Edward St Aubyn’s magnificent prose style.

As a guest, Emily Price had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions.

As a piece of English-language architecture, it’s as magnifcent as any country house (a house in town would be more severely punctuated, with quotes around the expressions and a colon after “sorry”), but it is also a clarion call for attentive decency (our favorite subject). Emily Price is a lout, which is unusual in a woman and therefore remarkable. With a man as its subject, the statement wouldn’t be as funny — but the surge wouldn’t be as extreme, either.

It’s his decency that redeems Patrick Melrose, that makes his miserable lapses into drug and drink abuse easy to overlook, at least when Patrick is not actually falling down or, more likely, lighting the fuse on a highly volatile situation. It’s his decency that makes him an interesting man, and not just the victim of beastly parents. (You’d think that his father, what with raping him for three years, would win the worst-parent laurels, but his mother’s incompetence as a human being makes his father’s wickedness seem ornamental.)

I spent an hour or so yesterday reading up on St Aubyn, who indeed, as one feared from various reviews, has drawn the Melrose saga from his own personal history. I managed to order copies of the two novels that he wrote in between Some Hope and Mother’s Milk; by the time they arrive, I’ll have finished At Last, which is, currently at least, the final Melrose novel. I wouldn’t be so sure. St Aubyn thought that he was through with Melrose after Some Hope; indeed, that’s the title given to an omnibus edition of the three Melrose novels that St Aubyn wrote before writing On the Edge and A Clue to the Exit, his two non-Melrose books. He wrote Mother’s Milk about a man called Mark something, but eventually realized that he was simplty continuing Patrick’s story. (He has a funny story to tell about what happened when he instructed his word processor to make the global change in names; a moment’s thought — aided by rueful experience — will probably tell it to you.) Now we have At Last, which begins (and, for all I know, ends) with Patrick’s mother’s funeral.

The Melrose novels may be the world’s longest suicide note, as well as (so far) an unsuccessful one. They constitute a letter written by a man who intends to take his own life, but who falls under the spell of his own writing. Not that you should imagine an attractive enchantment; one interviewer elicited from St Aubyn the confession that he wrote most of the first three books bare-chested, with a towel around his waist to soak up the sweat that poured out of him as he confessed his ghastly family secrets. (I don’t think that I could write very well under such conditions, but there you are — I’m no artist.) St Aubyn did indeed want to kill himself, and try to kill himself, but was saved by a rapture with the myth of Sisyphus. (Camus’s tract is mentioned early on in Bad News.) He would deal with the only serious philosophical problem (whether to commit suicide) as a novelist, doing the two things that the best novelists do so well that it’s hard to tell them apart: animating vivid characters with assiduous writing. Stories are all very well, but they can’t be allowed to upstage or trip up the quadrille of personages and prose, and St Aubyn has a wonderfully ironic way of not telling stories by hoovering them into backflashes. (The bit about Emily Price, above, comes from such a passage; Mary Melrose, sitting in the crematorium, is remembering a disastrous vacation in Provence.)  

I can sit here all day writing about these books — if I didn’t have a lunch date, that is — but it’s no use: writing about suicide notes is hardly going to fill up the tent. The only thing to do is to quote. From page 6 of the first novel, Never Mind.

When she had first met David twelve years ago, she had been fascinated by his looks. The expression that men feel entitled to wear when they stare out of a cold English drawing room onto their own land had grown stubborn over five centuries and perfected itself in David’s face.

 I really do believe that Jane Austen and Edward St Aubyn are in a class by themselves.

Update: “surge in THE demand”; corrected, after a painful Google search, on 16 February.

Gotham Diary:
Be Nice to Brice
8 February 2012

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Has anyone out there seen Brice de Nice, the 2005 comedy co-written by and starring Jean Dujardin? It is definitely a movie to bear in mind while you’re watching The Artist, if you can manage the cognitive dissonance. M Dujardin, who may receive an Academy Award for his suave performance in the latter film — he’s the compleat star that Old Hollywood never had, Douglas Fairbanks, Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant all rolled into one — turns out to be no less a maestro when it comes to playing jerks. He’s Jack Black, Peter Sellers, Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason all rolled into one. Throw in a little Buster Keaton for pathos — Jean Dujardin’s jerks are almost but not quite too lovable to be jerks.

My DVD of Brice de Nice offers no subtitles; I couldn’t even get the close-captioning to work. So I had no idea what the actors were saying most of the time. The only “dialogue” that was crystal clear occurred when Brice ploddingly read a newspaper story about his father’s arrest for money laundering, with his finger moving along the page. Language was not a barrier to understanding and enjoying the film, however. If it had been shot in Urdu, I’d have got it. All you really need to know is that 1991 classic, Point Break. If you know Point Break, you will understand why, for example, Brice, now that his allowance has been cut off by his father’s arrest for money laundering, and after he has failed to hold down a job as a waiter, wears two face masks of Jacques Chirac, one on the back of his head, when he attempts to hold up the Caisse de Nice. “Je suis le président de la Republique!” he declares. Break dancing ensues.

You may be aware that there isn’t much in the way of surf on the Côte d’Azur. But Brice is hopeful; he paddles out first thing every morning and sits wistfully on his board. When, later in the picture, no longer on the Mediterranean, he is confronted by an actual wave, well, you should see the look on his face.

There’s a very funny clip of Jean Dujardin on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon? He does an imitation of Robert De Niro, then an imitation of a camel, and then he combines them, doing a camel who is also Robert De Niro. In Brice de Nice, he offers another improvisatorial combination. It’s part Keanu Reeves and part 30 year-old moron with shoulder-length bottle-blond hair that keeps getting in his face. The little twisty shake of his head that gets the hair out of his eyes is pure Keanu Reeves, although I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen Mr Reeves actually do it. The deeper joke is that Brice idolizes the other star of Point Break, Patrick Swayze.

I expect that a subtitled edition of Brice de Nice will be available sooner or later. Sure, it’s dopey, but, like the two OSS 117 movies, it’s a riff on movies that Americans are very familiar with, and it’s much, much nicer than either of the Hangover movies.

Gotham Diary:
Orgy
7 February 2012

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

Perhaps it’s the afterburn of Edward St Aubyn’s Bad News, the Melrose novel in which hero Patrick spends a few mightily drug-addled days in Manhattan (with a junket to the Bronx), but I’m feeling as though I’ve been on some sort of non-traveling trip, induced by immersion in a lot of other people’s creative imaginations.

The Melrose books themselves — I’m not too far into Mother’s Milk — have induced the now very rare feeling that I am living in alternate worlds, my own and the novels’. Almost everything that I do is internally reported in a voice that distinctly belongs to an English writer who is twelve years my junior. There is nothing grandiose about this; I’m not wallowing in the notion that my life is the stuff of great fiction and worthy of being written about. (It is worthy of writing about, but by me, and as nonfictionally as possible.) It’s just that the novels have me noticing everyday things and routines as if they were captioned, and my job were to fill in the words. That’s how intensely St Aubyn’s prose has clicked with my way of being conscious.

(Not my way of writing, certainly. St Aubyn writes strong but lean sentences, in which dependent clauses almost always signal facetiousness, as if only idiots required explanations. Isn’t that what you’d expect, though, of a fictional voice preoccupied by the opening line of The Myth of Sisyphus?

***

How about a bit of housekeeping? Things are always changing at these sites of mine, and it’s hard to keep up. I tweak and fiddle with “improvements,” but then I don’t tell anyone about them, and then I get cross when people don’t figure things out for themselves. As if nobody had anything better to do.

But first, two items that I left off my Morse Questionnaire. I watched Remorseful Day at last last night, and so now this Morse jag is really done. Because I had watched the shows in order, I understood Morse’s heartbreak at losing Adele, the music teacher with whom he almost got something permanent going; she went to Australia and decided to stay there. The heartbreak becomes quite literal in the ensuing episode, and the final shot, to the strains of Parsifal, is a pan of Oxford’s dreaming spires in a mist. 

  • Indoor swimming pool (Y/N).
  • Institutional election (Y/N).

There. Back to housekeeping. If you are a regular reading, I recommend that you bookmark not this site but the old Daily Blague. There you will find an entry that bears the same title and image as its corresponding one here, but also, a link to that corresponding entry that is set to open The Daily Blague / reader in the same pane of your browser. I don’t know about you, but I prefer a default setting that opens links in new windows, but I’ve chosen the alterenative setting in this case to make it easy for you to return to The Daily Blague and post comments on what you’ve read here, if you have any. (Comments, not corrections; write to me privately about the latter.)

Gotham Diary:
Flâneur
6 February 2012

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Is it time to start talking about Web 3.0? This would be the ghost-downtown Web, the gated-community Web, the Web of Facebook, Twitter, and iPhone apps: the Web that’s already familiar and that you no longer want to know too much more about, not in any one sitting, anyway. The Web in which the flâneur might just as well stay at home.

Ah, the flâneur, beloved figment of Web 1.0.

And yet, reading Evgeny Morozov’s contribution to the Times‘s Sunday Review — well, I didn’t even have to start reading. There was Caillebotte’s great picture (still the best reason to visit Chicago), Rue de Paris, temps de pluie, with its burghers walking in the rain. Don’t say that they’re “strolling”; don’t imagine that their amiably aimless air has anything to do with Baudelaire or Benjamin. The setting may be “Paris” to you, but when Caillebotte painted it, this was one of the newest developments in town, too new for much greenery. (According to my map, it is now known as the Place de Dublin.) Neither grand nor funky, it was the last place you’d expect to encounter an errant bohemian in search of serendipity.

Maybe that was the point. Maybe the Times image editor appreciated the irony of illustrating “The Death of the Cyberflâneur” with a picture of post-flâneur Paris. That would be very clever. But I doubt that many readers saw it that way.

Meanwhile…(ahem): chopped liver? What am I doing here, do you suppose?

***

I don’t know much about Baudelaire & Benjamin’s idea of the flâneur; I’d never heard of it before the Web came along. AtWikipedia, I see, alongside the Caillebotte, that “the concept of the flâneur is important in academic discussions of the phenomenon of modernity.” I’ll try not to hold that against it. (Modernity turned out to be such a wicked idea.) The flâneur discovers that he (or she) is the ultimate arbiter of what’s interesting in the busy stream of city life, where the odds of running into something unexpected are at not only generally higher than they are anywhere else but also subject to rapid change, capable of dropping to zero if you walk into a newsstand where they sell lottery tickets. But we’re not here to talk about city life. We’re hear to evaluate Morozov’s claim, “Hardly anyone “surfs” the Web anymore.”

(Can we speak of the “surfeur”? Best not.)

I’m trying to think of the last time I did anything like surfing. Nothing comes to mind. I begin the workday with 1000+ unread feeds and try to whittle the number down. Lately, I’ve been canceling “subscriptions” to sites right and left. Beachcombing is one thing, looking for needles in haystacks is another (I’m thinking of WSJ’s Speakeasy, which sued to turn up the occasional tidbit of interest.) I may follow a link from a site to which one my feeds leads me, but this doesn’t happen often; as a rule, my feeds take me to long reads, after which I have to lie down, far from a computer screen.

If people aren’t surfing as much as they used to do, that’s because a lot of the odd and intriguing stuff has been discontinued. Stocking a site with catchy items is great fun at first, but then you either run out of material or resent the obligation to crank it out. Or both. You either give it up or adopt a professional attitude. This is where the difficulty in Internet flânerie comes in: to have a clear idea of what you’re doing, and a regular schedule for doing it, then close encounters with the surprising are going to become unlikely.

On the other hand, the space that used to be taken up by weird fun is filling up with sites such as The Awl, the comic carapace of which you don’t have to scratch very hard to feel the warm vibration of genuine thinking. Remember Maria Bustillos’s piece on David Foster Wallace’s “self-help” library? Of course you do. It was so intensely surprising that the actual library, the books that Wallace had marked up with comments about his mother, were withdrawn from public access. That sort of corker doesn’t pop every day, but, when it does, you’re very glad that you were there to see it. I’ll plow through any number of Alex Balk’s entries about bears if that’s what it takes to read Bustillos’s amazing journalism.

***

You’ll have heard me rattling on about “livings.” I still have an exclusive on this term, unfortunately, but my keen eye for like-minded analysis has spotted a few published parallels, the latest of which is an essay, or rump of an essay, by Slavoj Žižek, in the latest LRB to reach me, “The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie.” From a Marxian point of view, I gather — I have never begun to understand Marx — “salaried bourgeoisie” is something of an oxymoron; either you’re a worker who receives a salary, or  you’re an owner who receives the profits. The growth of large corporations — Žižek leaves this to inference — leads inevitably to the dwindling number of outright owners and its replacement by armies of individually impotent shareholders.

What’s behind the revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie? Income disparity — it isn’t great enough. This is a fantastic insight. While everyone’s attention is riveted on the widening gap between a handful of extremely wealthy people and the rest of us, nobody’s attending to the real irritant, which is the shrinking of the gap between the bourgeoisie and the working class. This isn’t a matter of less money for lawyers and doctors, but rather one of fewer jobs for people who used to be the equals of lawyers and doctors. Whole classes of middle management have evaporated since the 1970s.

Which is probably what gave me the idea of livings in the first place. The poor have always been with us; what strikes me as a newlypressing problem is the matter of finding occupation for the displaced bourgeoisie. This isn’t tenderness of heart so much as common sense: Žižek cautions against treating the lot of 2011s worldwide uprisings as revolts of the salaried bourgeoisie, but they all seem to have some of that in common, particularly if you consider the role played by college students whose job prospects are dismal.

With Žižek’s final paragraph, I could not agree more heartily.

The proletarianisation of the lower salaried bourgeoisie is matched at the opposite extreme by the irrationally high remuneration of top managers and bankers (irrational since, as investigations have demonstrated in the US, it tends to be inversely proportional to a company’s success). Rather than submit these trends to moralising criticism, we should read them as signs that the capitalist system is no longer capable of self-regulated stability – it threatens, in other words, to run out of control.

***

While we’re on the subject of dandies, how’s this for a pose: when somebody asked me if I favored the Giants or the Patriots yesterday, I blinked. “Baseball, already?”