Archive for March, 2012

Then read some more.
March 2012

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

¶ Here’s a fascinating little video about robots that reminds us how important it is to sit down and think through the problem of jobs for people. These little Kiva fellows are doing work that no human being ought to be asked to do for an extended period, much less a career, so they’re not the problem. Ask yourself: why is there no national chain, no McDonald’s, of dry cleaners? What can we learn from that? (; 3/29)

¶ Tony Judt’s widow, Jennifer Homans, writes that “ideas were a kind of emotion” for her husband, and what better evidence of this could we have than his determination to continue working through the ravages of ALS. This is what enabled Judt’s humanism to prevail over his intellectuality. (NYRB; 3/5) ¶ Kevin Hartnett is inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s thoughts about colonialism and the “single story” to translate the concept to family dynamics. (The Millions; 3/8)

All parents tell single stories about their kids and all kids wish they didn’t. Single stories are the principle reason that, eventually, kids become so eager to leave home — they want to escape the simple narratives told about them since they were born, to jar their parents into recognizing that they’re no longer (and maybe never were) the person they were made out to be when they were eight years old.

¶ Richard Wolin visits China and delivers lectures on the impact of the Cultural Revolution upon French intellectuals. Quite aside from negotiating the tricky political implications of his scholarship, Wolin is disappointed by mindless modernizing. “I traveled to China in search of otherness and cultural difference, only to discover how homogenous and uniform the world has become.” (LARB; via 3 Quarks Daily; 3/16) ¶ Benjaming Fong, a scholar at Columbia, argues that the only way to keep the world from degenerating into Hannah Arendt’s “heap of things” is to conduct the Freudian psychoanalytic conversation. (NYT; via 3 Quarks Daily; 3/20) ¶ At The Crux, Julie Sedivy reports on the work of linguist William Labov, which suggests an interesting link between regional pronunciation and political alignment in the “Inland North.” (3/28) ¶ John Lanchester, I’ll bet, never expected to become the financial expert that he has become. He wouldn’t be so fresh if he did. What Marx got right and wrong, at 193. (LRB; via The Awl; 3/29)

¶ Benjamin Wallace considers TED, noting that the conferences founder, Richard Saul Wurman, plans new conferences in the original TED’s spirit, less packaged and high-minded than Chris Anderson’s curation. We think that Wurman is on the right traack: the only guests will be the speakers. (New York; via MetaFilter; 3/1) Wallace writes,

Until recently, the universal self-­actualizing creative ambition was to write a novel. Everyone has a novel in them, it was said. Now the fantasy has changed: Everyone has a TED Talk in them.

¶ Jonah Lehrer explains why the brain’s capacity for the subconscious parallel processing of massive amounts of data makes our emotions more reliable than our reasoned recollections. (Frontal Cortex; 3/2) ¶ Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist, however, argue that Mr Lehrer has gone too far in the claims about “creativity” (which, we agree, is an awfully nebulous portmanteau) in Imagine. (The Millions; 3/27) ¶ Laura McKenna casts a gimlet eye upon the Pinterest phenomenon. “We may never make that bucolic scene a reality, but in the meantime, Pinterest is making big money off letting adults play make-believe.” (GOOD; 3/5) ¶ Whatever you do, don’t go whining to Felix Salmon about the cost of living in New York City. It’s “the ultimate in parochialism.” (3/6) ¶ Speaking of reasons and emotions — well, you can’t, and Sam McNerny explains why (in case you hadn’t guessed) at Why We Reason (he’ll have to come up with a new title now!). “Reason” and “emotion” are ancient concepts, conceived in utter ignorance of neurology. But they’re hardily planted in our minds, and they’re proved to be helpful in explaining what neuroscientists are discovering about memory, decision-making, and so on. Now we’re on notice that, since neither reason nor emotion actually exists in the mind, the words are just as likely to skew our understanding. (via The Browser; 3/8) ¶ Alex Engebretson appreciates the thought of Marilynne Robinson, while noting that it takes no notice of intellectual trends emerging after her undergraduate days. Also:

She includes almost zero references to TV, movies, Facebook, celebs, or anything to do with pop culture. Her lonesome distance from the mainstream is eccentric, but it’s also what gives her essays their strange power to diagnose America’s discontents.

Indeed. (The Millions; 3/16) ¶ Flight simulator for the sociable soul: reading fiction really does exercise the brain, which, according to Annie Murphy Paul, “ does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” (NYT; 3/19)

¶ For those of you who persist in regarding Harvard as some kind of school, Yves Smith has a bridge for sale. (Naked Capitalism; 3/5) ¶ Worst US President ever? Just what we thought: Andrew Jackson. Akim Reinhardt has good reason to leave a trail of tears. (3 Quarks Daily; 3/12) ¶ Felix Salmon makes us wonder: does the term “banking client” make sense? How did it come about that everyone expected banks to act altruistically? On the other hand, perhaps they ought to. (3/16) ¶ How do you feel about Mike Daisey “improving” a few anecdotes for his powerful, anti-Apple theatre piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs? Some people, it appears, believe that Daisey is to be saddled with the responsibilities of a journalist. We should have thought that it was enough that his monologue inspire real journalists to go after the story. We’re afraid, then, that Jen Paton seems to us to be confused. (3 Quarks Daily; 3/19) ¶ Ian McEwan writes (or speaks) with characteristic fluency about the drive to be first, experienced (to their surprise) by both Darwin and Einstein; and about the elegance exhibited by novel theories that find rapid acceptance. In short: the art of science. (Guardian; via Cosmic Variance; 3/27) ¶ Mark O’Connell thinks out loud about John D’Agata, Mike Daisey, and even Kony 2012, all in one go. “The poetry of fact is inevitably less poetic when the facts turn out to be counterfeit.” Hear, hear. (The Millions) ¶ And, while we’re on the subject of Mike Daisy, let’s hear from Maria Bustillos — who, having worked there, actually knows something about China — with an update on “orientalism.” (The Awl; 3/29) 

¶ Rohan Maitzen proposes a return to the free and impressionistic criticism  exemplified by the two series of Common Reader pieces written by the very uncommon Virginia Woolf. (Open Letters Monthly; via 3 Quarks Daily) ¶ Also arguing that we need to re-establish a common language that explains the world to non-specialists, Carl Zimmer proposes Alan Alda’s Flame Challenge. (The Loom; 3/5) ¶ Never mind bad books; Tim Parks wonders if it’s really necessary to finish reading the good ones. (NYRBlog) ¶ Everyone wants to beat up on Jonathan Franzen, most recently for writing that Edith Wharton wasn’t pretty, and have to agree that he brings this hostility upon himself. We should have said that what made Edith Wharton unattractive was her impatient intelligence, which was a great deal less becoming in constrained Old New York (which she quitted) than any degree of plainness. In any case, we’re glad that Laura Miller sees Franzen’s point. (Salon; 3/16) ¶ Notes on Edith Wharton br Francine Prose, who is unblinking but also unjudging about Wharton’s casual, cringe-making anti-semitism. (NYRBlog; 3/22) ¶ Cory MacLauchlin is tantalized by the possibility of palpating the manuscript of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. No such luck, but a warm reminder of what is still a prime example of the posthumous hit. (The Millions; 3/26) ¶ Michael Hingston writes admiringly of Lysley Tenorio’s linked story collection, Monstress. (The Rumpus) ¶ Michelle Dean wishes that she’d been there when Wallace Stevens took a swing at Ernest Hemingway — and broke his hand. (The Rumpus; 3/27)

¶ Nicole Cliffe captures the great fun of having read The Secret History, which certainly would have inspired us to major in Classics, had we been younger. Also: why nobody will ever make a successful film adaptation. And don’t skip the discussion questions. By the way, Nicole, The Little Friend is pretty good, too; it’s sort of Harper Lee’s second novel. (The Awl; 3/22) ¶ Susan Orlean @ Days of Yore: “Write, write, write, and then read. Then read some more. Then sit down and write some more. (3/27) ¶ We have no idea what makes this timely, but Karen Cook’s Village Voice appreciation of Louise Fitzhugh, the creatrix of Harriet the Spy, is clearly General Delivery. (via MetaFilter; 3/29)

¶ Whit Stillman has a new film coming out next months, his first since the Nineties. To prepare for Damsels in Distress, have a look at Lindsey Bahr’s review of Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco, at least two of which are concerned with such damsels. (Splitsider; 3/1) ¶ A profile of Whit Stillman, who “extols the overlooked merits of convention and the hidden virtues of the status quo.” As who wouldn’t, with such wicked stepmother issues. (NYT; 3/19) ¶ Even we were too young to watch Sid Caesar when he was new, and our appreciation of his artistry has nothing to do with nostalgia. Speaking of Artistry, nobody has mentioned the undoubtable influence of Caesar’s Aggravation Boulevard on the new Best Picture. (Splitsider; 3/2)

¶ Julia Felsenthal’s “curious history” of faux-traditional West African prints reminds us of globalization’s dense colonial roots. (Slate; via The Morning News; 3/5) ¶ Kyo Maclear visits The Monkey’s Paw used bookshop in Toronto, and realizes something that it’s easy to overlook in this networked world: the connection between a reader and a book is unique. No two people like a book in quite the same way. And every book is dead when it isn’t being read. (The Millions; 3/12) ¶ We’re all for livening up symphony orchestra concerts, but fisticuffs in the box seats is going too far! (Sun-Times; via Arts Journal; 3/16) ¶ How gurls talk! Mary HK Choi and Natasha Vargas-Cooper dish The Hunger Games. (The Awl; 3/26) ¶ JR Paris recalls a former friend who used to eat dinner seated in a chair at his open refrigerator while driving himself crazy reacting to radio news. That’s wilder than any of the Watergate characters he’s reading about in Thomas Mallon’s novel! (Mnémoglyphes; 3/27) ¶ Felix Salmon explains Damien Hirst (3/28):

Hirst, for better or worse, has moved himself out of the art market and into the consumption-goods market: he manufactures art works, sets the prices for them, and sells them to anybody willing to buy them. Once you have bought a Hirst, you then exhibit it as a way of displaying your wealth and, um, taste. Hirsts have not been a speculative investment since 2008, and I very much doubt the Tate retrospective is going to change that.

Have a Look: ¶ Maria Popova’s selection of vintage posters from 20th Century Travel. (Brain Pickings; 3/3) ¶ The new look at, which reminds us of what we did almost two years ago. Except of course for the vastly superior tech. Where can we buy some of that? (3/5) ¶ Intersections in the Age of Driverless Cars. (@; 3/19) ¶ Melissa Broder’s Lit Scene Tarot. (HTMLGiant; 3/22) ¶ Clothes link the characters in the two tales of W./E. (Clothes on Film; 3/27)

Noted: ¶ Count Lustig’s Ten Commandments for Con Men. (Lists of Note; via; 3/1) ¶ Hey girl. Ryan Gosling meme roundup @ MetaFilter. (3/2) ¶ Tyler Cowen is “pleased to have no middle initial.” ¶ The actual Irish speak up: “We don’t really like “Danny Boy.” (IrishTimes; via Real Clear World; 3/5) ¶ Next time you cut your finger, save a life. (GOOD) ¶ What happens to clothes that you donate. (GOOD; 3/8) ¶ Armistead Maupin looks back sweetly to the days of writing on carbon paper. (Guardian; via The Browser)  ¶ Jed Perl thinks not highly of Cindy Sherman. (New Republic; 3/16) ¶ Tyler Cowen is enjoying his advance copy of Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity. (3/19) ¶ Books Re-read by Helen DeWitt. ¶ 42 Common Kitchen Fails. (via The Morning News; 3/21) ¶ Vita Sackville-West @ HiLobrow (3/26) ¶ Tumblr: the public commonplace? (The Millions) ¶ The hygiene hypothesis regarding autoimmune diseases. (80beats; 3/27) ¶ “Fighting Polluters Pits Environmental Groups Against Each Other.” (GOOD; 3/28)

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

Friday, March 30th, 2012


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Song for (about) my grandson:

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

So fi-yi-yine. Da-doo.


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

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

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


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

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

Gotham Diary:
28 March 2012

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

WEIRD is a very handy acronym, coined by three cultural psychologists a couple of years ago, that ought to remind us of the limited applicability of our studies of the world — those of us who happen to be Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Most people on earth don’t see the world as we do; according to Jonathan Haidt, who discusses the implications of the acronym in his important new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, most people have a more complicated idea of right and wrong than we do. Haidt wants us to stop thinking of most people — those who aren’t WEIRD — as deluded or misguided. He wants to show us why most people think that WE are weird. The lesson is overdue.

In the flush of his enthusiasm, however, he seems to think that we really are weird. Returning to the University of Virginia from a three-month Fulbright fellowship in Orissa, in southern India, he senses the first stirrings of an “ethic of divinity,” an awareness that his rigorously secular upbringing might have been missing something. He’s right, but he is also impatient, as people always are with new discoveries. At a cafeteria, he is affronted by the vulgarity of a young woman who thanks a friend for a big favor by saying that, if the friend were a man, she would know just how to say “thank you.” I am not going to repeat the details that Haidt (quite rightly) finds disgusting.

The ethic of divinity lets us give voice to inchoate feelings of elevation and degradation — our sense of “higher” and “lower.” It gives us a way to condemn crass consumerism and mindless or trivialized sexuality. We can understand long-standing laments about the spiritual emptiness of consumer society in which everyone’s mission is to satisfy their personal desires.

As tantrums indulged by WEIRD people who have “seen the light” go, this is very representative stuff. As insight into WEIRD malaise, however, it is totally unhelpful. We can’t go back to Orissa, and most people in Orissa would take about a generation to become WEIRD if they relocated to Toledo. Crass consumerism and mindless or trivialized sexuality are the unwanted but unavoidable costs of living in a construction zone. Here in the West, the old ethics of community and divinity were dismantled (or at least deprived of status) a long time ago, on the theory that they caused more harm than good. Living with the remaining ethic of autonomy, we have learned that it is not sufficient. We see that we need to refashion ethics of community and divinity. It is my hope (and sometimes, on good days, my conviction) that the old sense of divinity will metamorphose into a new sense of stewardship: a “green” respect for the mysteries and exigencies of life on earth. This stewardship will necessarily involve a refashioning of community obligations.  

To revisit the young woman at the cafeteria table, what’s trivialized isn’t sexuality. (“I’m kidding,” you can hear her cry.) What’s trivialized is the public space in which the remark is made. Like so many people on cell phones, the young woman is oblivious of the strangers around her; because she does not know them, or because her attention is focused upon one friend, they don’t exist. She makes her raunchy comment as if they weren’t there, but of course they are there. Her rude thoughtlessness is what you have to expect when the ethic of autonomy is all that people have to go on, and Haidt is right to be disgusted. But the prevailing way of life in Orissa has nothing to tell us about how to advance. It only reminds us where we’ve been — in an everyday landscape littered by an even more extensive disregard for the public sphere. (“Cows and dogs roamed freely around town,” Haidt reminisces, “so you had to step carefully around their droppings; you sometimes saw people defecating by the roadside; and garbage was often heaped into fly-swarmed piles.”) 

What we need is an ethic of public respect. Obviously, it’s going to need a better name than that; ever since the French Revolution, we’ve seen that invocations of the “public” interest tend to bring out the worst in people and politicians. “Honorable stewardship” is the best that I can do this morning.


Where did the sun go? I’ll be out for a few hours, making grand rounds. (I’m going to ask the internist, as long as I’m there for my annual physical exam, to drop some Blephamide, prescribed the other day by the ophthalmologist, into my eyes. I’m hopeless at it myself and would just spill it down my cheeks. Kathleen takes care of the operation mornings and nights, but that leaves two midday doses.) I can’t wait to see how much more of the intersection of 86th Street and Second Avenue has been torn up since yesterday. It’s looking like Baghdad out there — and sounding like it, too. Blasting begins any day.

Gotham Diary:
27 March 2012

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Perhaps it was the hour, but reading That Woman late last night caused me to realize that the story of Wallis Simpson and David Windsor is basically a whodunit, with the corpus delecti an empty throne. An abdication is certainly a kind of death, when you think about it — which you don’t, because abdications are sensationally uncommon and aren’t really much like one another, much less anything else. What happened between 1934 and 1936? Who else was involved in David’s ultimate decision to abandon his throne so that he could marry Wallis? What did Wallis really think about it? These questions may not be of world-historical importance, but we don’t ask them out of garden-variety prurience. The Abdication is something of an unsolved murder mystery, and that’s why, in the hands of a compelling writer, it makes a gripping yarn.

For decades — from the crisis itself until just the other day, it seems — the “crime” was attributed entirely to Wallis. Represented as a sexual predator and an adventuress, the daughter of decayed Baltimore gentry was presumed to have pinned her social ambitions to the most glamorous victim imaginable, the heir to the King of England. She tossed over her husband, Ernest Simpson (and who knew, by the way, that Simpson was a Jew?), and she made David toss over his other lady friends, Freda Dudley Ward and Thelma, Viscountess Furness. Once married to David, Wallis drove him on a relentless course of globetrotting entertainments and jewelry-buying sprees — paltry compensation for the vanished throne.

A different Wallis has been emerging of late. I have no idea why. It could be the letters that feature so prominently at the climax of Madonna’s W./E. It could be the natural pendulum of sympathy, which can be counted on to swing back and forth a few times in the aftermath of shocking events. This new Wallis is a party girl who got in over her head. Worn down by a history of precarious finances, she was immobilized by David’s lavish generosity — a new development for him, by the way, one that she seems to have been the first to inspire. Anne Sebba, who is certainly a compelling writer, sees a dilemma, not a strategy:

Still convinced that this was an infatuation that would pass, she told him that his ‘behaviour last night made me realise how very alone I shall be some day — and because I love you I don’t seem to have the strength to protect myself from your youthfulness.” If she was not deemed good enough for Felipe Espil when she was a decade younger, surely it was only a matter of time before the heir to the British throne tossed her in the same way? Frozen with anxiety, she could not move. The Prince responded by giving her more gifts of money and jewelry, further sapping her resolve to walk away. It would not be out of character to imagine that Wallis was making a mental calculation of what she would need if she were to be abandoned by both men.

This conforms to the portrait that Madonna paints. It is not the conduct of a bold schemer but rather that of a trapped pet. And it vitiates the claim that Wallis was the “murderer” of King Edward VIII. So, if she wasn’t, who was? Whodunit? I don’t expect Sebba’s book to solve the mystery, but it promises to point detectives in a different direction. More about that anon; I’m only on page 137.  

Gotham Diary:
Early in the Morning
26 March 2012

Monday, March 26th, 2012

 The ophthalmologist could see me, but only this morning; he and his wife (who runs his office) are flying off to Berlin this afternoon. I was sure that I’d had my eyes checked since Will was born; I still have very clear memories of showing of photographs of him on the iPad, even though they can’t be true, since I haven’t been.

The examination was inconclusive. Tentatively: conjuctivitis and something unknown, the something unknown currently obscrued by a blog of blood. Drops will reduce that over the next two weeks, and then the doctor will have another look.

The ophthalmologist could see me, at 9:30 this morning. The only thing that gets me out of the house that early is a colonoscopy (so as to break fast soonest). I had no idea how to arrange the morning. I thought about canceling, but not serously. I got out of bed, dressed, and went across the street for breakfast. Then I came home to make tea and toast for Kathleen. At 8:45, I set out. The morning was clear and cool — cold, almost. Blustery. I cut over to Third at 84nd and then to Park at 82nd. I arrived at the 70th Street office about five minutes early. I was on my way home, via Madison, at 9:35.

It was a few minutes before ten when I pulled up at Crawford Doyle, so I wasn’t surprised to find it shuttered. I needed to buy (get him) two Elizabeth Taylor novels, A View of the Harbour and Blaming. I had begun A Game of Hide and Seek, but it seemed very sad and not particularly dry, so I set it aside at once. The other titles had been highly recommended, so I thought I’d continue my perusal of Taylor with one of them. At a few minutes past ten, the shop opened up, and somehow the need for two books developed into the purchase of six.


 One of those books was Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I have more or less dropped everything in order to read this book, which, from what I could tell, and certainly from what I have read so far, accords with a great many conclusions that I’d begun reaching even before the Cognitive Revolution got going. Top of the list: the delusion of rationality, the idea that man (very much the male of the species) is a rational animal. I’ve regarded Plato as a crock for well over twenty years; before that, I labored under the apprehension that I would never be bright enough to understand him.

Haidt is no modernist; his previous book was subtitled Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. I wouldn’t call him a West-basher, either, but he does make the case that morality in the West is somewhat cramped by global standards. (He hasn’t mentioned how much this limitation to the individual perspective owes to Christianity, which was from the start remarkably unconcerned with honor, purity, and — strictly speaking — authority. It’s this last item that preoccupies me. In the West, authority has lost all foundation, such that even if might doesn’t make right it’s the only thing that gets the job done. On optimistic days, I like to think that the idea of authority is undergoing a thorough overhaul in the Western imagination, and that in order to get on with the work we had to get rid of the older model.

On very optimistic days, I imagine that Age will once again command respect.


On Friday, I went to see Jeff, Who Lives at Home. It’s a very good movie, but good precisely for being utterly unremarkable. The Duplass brothers have concocted a filmmaking technique that condenses the tedium of everyday American life (Hooters, strip malls, cubicles) into a sort of visual punch that is itself full of refreshment. Ed Helms upstages Jason Segel by being not at all nice and embodying all the worldly attachments that Asian transcendentalism counsels us to avoid. He is a complete prick to his sweetly vexed wife (played by Judy Greer). Somebody really ought to make a picture in which Mr Helms plays twins, one as evil as Pat in this picture and one as sunny as Tim in Cedar Rapids.

My own private Susan Sarandon, alas, was not up to a romance with Rae Dawn Chong, kissing under the waterfall or elsewhere. That’s just me.

Weekend Note:
Taylor Time
24-25 March 2012

Saturday, March 24th, 2012


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Gotham Diary:
23 March 2012

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Last night, after dinner, I thought I’d go through some catalogues that had arrived in the day’s mail. At long last, I would put into practice some painfully-acquired wisdom about the transitory nature of worldly things, especially sharp shirts and sweaters that appear in catalogues. They go on appearing in the catalogues (jammed in a basket with other catalogues) long after they disappear from the merchants’ warehouses. I must have confused catalogues with reference works. Well, no more.

Having ordered two shirts and a sweater from Westport Big and Tall, I moved through the rest of the pile, and tore out pages showing things that, if I was still interested in a day or so, I’d order even though I would no longer have those vital Customer and Source codes that appear in blue and yellow boxes on the back of every catalogue. By the end of the evening, I was able to throw most of the catalogues away.

There were two or three catalogues that I leafed through with a strange dispassion, an odd new feeling that there couldn’t possibly be anything in their pages that I might actually need. No, it was stronger than that; it was a prickle of self-criticism that would have been uncomfortable but for the after-dinner atmosphere. Page after page offered handsome photographs of items that I already owned. For the most part, I actually did use these things (pots and pans especially — I have lots of pots and pans, but I use them all, I really do). But there were dubious gadgets, and even more dubious baking pans. Someone, I forget who, was touting a baking pan in which you could cook for individual-sized pot pies, complete with lids to help brown the top crusts. This reminded me of the individual deep-dish pizza pans that I bought at Williams-Sonoma (in the store) last summer. I made deep-dish pizzas a couple of times, and I find that the pans, stacked on my kitchen cart, come in handy for a thousand uses. But I don’t know when I’m going to attempt pizza again, and, when I do, I’m all to likely to buy some new kind of special pan. Kathleen would like me to have another go at baking sourdough loaves, so I’ll probably buy some starter from King Arthur. I’ll have to be careful to avoid topping off my order with one of the many miracle concoctions that, strangely for a firm that claims to be dealing in wholesome, natural ingredieents, litter King Arthur’s pages.

In the Williams-Sonoma catalogue, I came across an astouding recipe, for rigatoni with sausage ragù — a favorite dish of mine. Always on the lookout for tweaks, I glanced at the recipe and was surprised to see that its short list of ingredients began with two kinds of flour. It turned out to be a recipe for making your own rigatoni and dumping on a jar of the store’s sausage ragù. Could anyone be so boneheaded as to follow it? There has never been a bottled sauce that’s really superior to what anyone actually capable of making pasta from scratch could throw together with a little thought; if nothing else, bottled sauces are always too sweet. If you must go to all that trouble, then at least enjoy the pasta with butter and parmesan; don’t wreck it with packaged goop.

There was no Levenger catalogue, so I wasn’t invited to giggle at the reader’s porn. I’ve written about that before. I don’t know how susceptible I still am to Levenger’s blandishments. For one thing, I’ve never been done more writing and note-taking in my life, and I’m unaware of unfulfilled needs for special materials. For another thing, I’m unaware of a cubic centimeter of available storage space. It’s also possible that I’m just getting old, and have lost the hope of ever producing the great literature that Levenger presents as a pricily affordable inevitability.


Kathleen and I had a good laugh about the rigatoni recipe; then we took up a discussion of something that we really don’t know anything about, which is the industrial production of pasta in Italy. It seemed to me that, while Northern Europeans inaugurated the Industrial Revolution by stamping out Adam Smiths screws and nails, the Italians, when they finally got round to fiddling with steam engines, began with the extrusion of pasta. Makes sense to me.

Gotham Diary:
22 March 2012

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Suffering an attack of the vapors yesterday, I spent several hours watching movies, and my mind is just about blank as a result. Perhaps it’s not the movies but the weather. Perhaps it’s the little eye infection that has been bothering me for a couple of days. But let’s say that it was the movies that flooded my mind with so many images that there’s nowhere to move.

First, I watched Crime d’amour, an Alain Corneau film that didn’t do so well in US theatres last fall. Starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier, it turned out to be a very clever study of revenge; I was so satisfied when it was over that I wanted to watch it again right away. But instead, I pulled out a classic that obviously inspired Crime d’amour, at least in part: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les diaboliques. Made in 1955, Diabolique (as it is known in English) is depressing to look at because it shows France at its poorest; the clothes may be up-to-date (sort of — only on Simone Signoret), but the living conditions are uncomfortably pre-modern. So I don’t watch the movie often and actually have difficulty remembering exactly how it comes out in the end. “Merci pour eux.

For a complete change of pace, I turned to a movie that I’ve always known about, long possessed, but never seen, Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings, with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. And Thomas Mitchell and Richard Barthelmess and Sig Ruman and even Rita Hayworth; the stars are only principals here — there’s almost the feeling of a Preston Sturges ensemble. I watched it because Jim Emerson recently called it “the most entertaining movie ever made.” Well, gee, that’s a recommendation! Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t say that I agree; this is a Columbia picture from 1940, and the special effects are a little on the crude side. There is one long shot of a tricky landing on a mountain top that’s probably the most exciting bit of aviation that I’ve ever seen, and I certainly liked the movie overall; but “most entertaining”? No, that palm has to go to another entry on Emerson’s desert-island list: North By Northwest.


Cary Grant is not famous for the movies that he made in the 1940s. Oh, The Philadelphia Story and Notorious are well-known, but they’re not Cary Grant movies, not in the way that North By Northwest is. “Even I’d like to be Cary Grant,” the actor famously and significantly quipped; but in the Forties he went in for not being Cary Grant, and Only Angels Have Wings shows him hard at work trying to be someone else — Clark Gable, possibly.

Grant looks ridiculous in his braod-brimmed hat, loose trousers, and gunbelt; when he dons his leather flight jacket, you cringe at the thought that he might suddenly turn out to be Harrison Ford. There’s a sour cast to his Geoff Carter that, on Grant, seems mean and a little nasty, and not at all interesting. We may all wish that we were Cary Grant, but we don’t want to know what wounded Cary Grant. It’s arguable, on the evidence of this film as well as that of his career, that nothing wounded Cary Grant — nothing gave him cause to pull bitter faces.

The movie’s theory of what wounded Geoff Carter is Rita Hayworth’s character, and, oh, boy, is this ever miscasting. You can imagine Cary Grant throwing a hissy fit for being made to act in a movie with Rita Hayworth, but you cannot imagine any character that he would plausibly play being interested in the likes of such a tramp. Or is she a vamp? It doesn’t matter: Cary Grant doesn’t go in for ladies of such floodlit allure, especially if, like Hayworth, they have absolutely no sense of humor. Hayworth is not a very good actress, but she is already a star here, handily blotting out, for the duration of her scenes, the presence of Jean Arthur in the rest of the movie.


Ever since seeing her for the first time, in François Ozon’s Huit Femmes, I have been unable to decide whether Ludivine Sagnier is pretty. Sometimes she looks angelically blonde; at others (especially in profile) her features take on a heavy, plain weight. Her eyes, without make-up, assume a startled innocence that makes her seem not only fragile but too young to be in the movies. But she can do big girls, too, as Ozon’s Swimming Pool makes clear. In Crime d’amour, Ms Sagnier is just as complicated and impossible to pin down as her co-star, who has been defying categorization for the length of her career.

I think that it had something to do with the haircut: Kristin Scott Thomas kept reminding me of Stéphane Audran, who could easily have played Christine, the dangerous boss with a feline interest in playing with her employees. Later, I would think of how well Ms Scott Thomas would have done in Ms Audran’s roles — as Babette, certainly; as Alice (in Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie); as Huguette (Coup de torchon). In the end, though, I prefer the movies in which Kristin Scott Thomas’s character has a lot of wicked fun, as she does in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

Yes, that’s what I want: remakes of The Palm Beach Story and The Great Lie in which Kristin Scott Thomas takes the Mary Astor parts. “Nitz, Toto, nitz!

Gotham Diary:
21 March 2012

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

In the middle of the last decade and beyond, I went to a fair number of book events, readings and signings. I stopped going for a number of reasons, but one of them was a feeling of importunity: I wanted something from the book event experience that it was unreasonable to expect authors to provide. I didn’t want to present myself as a fan. No; I wanted to present myself as a serious reader, with not entirely inarticulate thoughts of his own. I wanted, in short, to present myself as an author myself, as the author of this site.

That’s why I went down to the Village yesterday evening to see and hear and to meet Peter Cameron, who read from his new novel, Coral Glynn, answered a few questions, and then signed books. (Someone asked him where the book’s title came from, and that turned out to be quite a story.) A few weeks ago, I scribbled some notions about Coral Glynn in this space, and, the next morning, I received a nice note from Mr Cameron. It was not my best moment by any means; my remarks had been glancing and less than coherent. I was convinced that Coral Glynn was laced with allusions and other references to mid-century British fiction, and afraid that, if I attempted a straightforward commentary, I’d reveal a stunning ignorance of this literature — all the more stunning in being illusory, as I am not in fact ignorant of it.

I felt challenged by Coral Glynn  to guess its secrets and to crack its codes. The mainstream reviews, to my mind, were all wet; they took the book at face value, a period story about the silent sufferings of extremely repressed English men and women. Stiff upper lip and all that. In the end, they all made Coral Glynn into the book version of one of those porcelain or textile tchotchkes that can be ordered from the pages of the BBC catalogue and elsewhere. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the surface of Coral Glynn might be described as “unassuming.” But I’ll be the last to let it go at that.

Since I couldn’t think of anything clever to say, I hemmed and hawed and gagged. Nevertheless, Peter Cameron dropped me a nice note to thank me. So I was able to present myself in the desired capacity last night at Three Lives Books. Mr Cameron may have regarded me as a deluded pilgrim from Yorkville, but he could not have been more pleasant, and I had none of the old feeling of shortcoming when, afterward, I headed uptown for dinner with Kathleen.

Mr Cameron replied to one question with the statement that he writes “from his subconscious.” My first reaction to this was to feel foolish about looking for hidden meanings in Coral Glynn, because any meanings remaining hidden would be locked up in the author’s mind. Then I thought: “How American.” I could hear an Englishman saying the same thing, and Coral Glynn was there to remind me why. The English don’t have subconsciouses; it’s not allowed. They are forced by each other to register but repress so much information about status and permission that there is neither the room nor the energy for subterranean drives. If you do have a subconscious, poor sod, then you have no choice but follow Edward St Aubyn into substance abuse, to shut it up. For the Coral Glynns of the world, just getting through the day without provoking hostilities is exhausting enough.

Three Lives is easily the most charming book shop that I’ve ever visited, ancient-seeming but not at all musty. I had never been before. I wonder if I’m carrying this native New Yorker thing too far. No self-respecting native New Yorker toddles out to gawp at the Statue of Liberty up close. You’d think I believed that walking around Greenwich Village is for out-of-towners. I never seem to have any reason to go to that part of town. And the part of town that I live in is one that almost no one from anywhere else knows or wants to know anything about.



Gotham Diary:
“If it were always breakfast, I’d be fine.”
20 March 2012

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

My plan is to go downtown this evening, to Three Lives Books, for Peter Cameron’s reading. I found out about it yesterday (someone told me), and, for once, my to-do list is clear enough for me to contemplate the excursion. I’ll take along my copies of two of Mr Cameron’s books, the new Coral Glynn and the classic Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, which I’m about to finish for the second time.

Last night, as I was breezing through the second half of the book, I kept coming up with questions for the author. I didn’t write them down, and now I can’t remember any of them, because, after all, they amounted to little more than anticipatory literary chitchat. Decades from now, someone will produce a reaonsably scholarly biography of Peter Cameron, and unearth connections between his fiction and his life, such as they may be. The trade-off for being alive at the same time as an interesting author is that you never get to find out any of that interesting information. The question is, though: why is it interesting?

Mr Cameron’s second novel, Andorra, is full of interesting narrative decisions, but the book itself did not interest me. I was tremendously put off, on a sexual-preference level, by his application of the name of a mountain-bound feudal remnant to a seaside locality. It must the result, this aversion, of my passionate childhood philately, which was fueled by my innate desire to know where everything is. Where is always more directly interesting to me that why or how. So all that I really remember about Andorra is that it tapered into metafiction, whatever that means (and I may be wrong), and that Andorra wasn’t where it was supposed to be. And although I bought This Is the City of Your Final Destination, I did not read it. If Ms NOLA hadn’t strongly recommended Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, I’m not sure that I’d be following the author. As it is, I already want to re-read Coral Glynn.


James Sveck, the protagonist of Someday, is enviably bright and sophisticated. That is, I envy him as if I were still his age, eighteen. He’s so way ahead of me! And already he has mastered that fully expressive deadpan that makes me just about squeal with delight.

I sometimes got spooked working alone in the gallery. Anyone could walk in off the street and often anyone did, and the problem was you had to be cordial and welcoming even if you instantly knew they were freaks. John told me that if anyone really seemed dangerous I should tell him or her that the gallery was closing early and escort them out and lock the door. If they refused to leave I was to call the building’s security guard, but since he spent most of his time out on the sidewalk smoking and saying things like “Baby, baby, you don’t look so happy, I can make you very happy, baby” to the women walking by, and since the elevator (if it was working) took about half an hour to reach the sixth floor, I knew I would be dead before any help arrived.

The entire paragraph vibrates on a tension between “often anyone did” and “I knew I would be dead.” The exaggeration is funny, but it does not disarm the menace, at least for someone who, like James, thinks that he expects the worst.

And then there are the sessions with Dr Adler, the psychiatrist. I suppose I’d like to know how Peter Cameron conceived these scenes. Did he go to a shrink in his teens? How else would he know? Maybe he has a friend in the profession who has briefed him well. I’m curious. Because even though more than fifty years have passed since I spent my hours in the office of a Dr Knight in Scarsdale, James’s encounters with Dr Adler are palpably identical. The older person reacts to what the young person says, with neutral-seeming probes. To the young person, who is an adolescent, very much in between states and very tired of being in transit, the doctor’s attempt to fix meanings and references is uncommonly annoying. I sit there; I don’t know who I am, only who I don’t want to be, which is pretty much who I seem to be but know that I can’t really be, because, if it is, if I am, then I’m going to commit suicide.

James dreams of buying a solid, stone-clad old house in a quiet Midwestern suburb, and getting a job as a librarian. This is meant to be funny, by which I mean that the author introduces the dream at the most incongruous points in the narrative. What a strange little old man James is, dreaming of retirement already. But it’s the prime of life that terrifies him: how on earth will he be a man? I couldn’t imagine it, either. I took refuge in history books, in daydreams of living in the Fifteenth or the Eighteenth Centuries.

On the cross-country trip that my family took in the summer of 1962, we stopped at my father’s birthplace, Clinton, Iowa, where he still had relatives. Among these was an elderly cousin and his wife who had never had children but who were still, or perhaps for that very reason, very sporty and youthful. They lived in a very pleasant one-story cottage-like house with a wrap-around verandah. It was as though they had flown an acre of New England to the heights above the Mississippi. The next stop on our trip was Chicago, but by the time our departure came round I’d made fast friends with the cousin’s wife, also a reader of The New Yorker, and she asked my parents if I could stay on for a week or so and then join up with them later. I don’t know why my mother declined this invitation, but she and my father may have been concerned that I would exhibit some shocking, shaming eccentricity in their absence and that they wouldn’t be there for quick damage control. It wasn’t that I had actually done anything really shocking or shaming (perhaps I’m forgetting something), but I was already regarded as an odd child, difficult to manage and possibly bad-tempered. My parents were probably only doing the responsible thing. But the vision of the week that I’d have spent with the happy older couple in their vine-clad house established itself as a vision of paradise that has diminished only to the extent that I find myself actually inhabiting it (albeit in a New York apartment), now that I am their age, and no longer have to worry about being a man.

Gotham Diary:
19 March 2012

Monday, March 19th, 2012

A piece of music that I have known well for most of my life (as who hasn’t, I’m inclined to ask), Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, was transformed for me on Saturday afternoon by Paul Taylor’s choreography for Roses, a ballet that we hadn’t seen before. This is Taylor at his most pastoral and elegaic. I’m embarrassed to say that I see the dancers, in retrospect, at rest, not in motion, but I also remember that there was nothing at all static about it. I was peaceably engulfed, at one moment, by the notion that Roses embodies everything that is precious to me about life, and that therefore it would make a fitting memorial, if one were wanted. Talk about pastoral! Now that I think of it, though, Roses does convey something of the tender loss that abides in all the great Poussin canvases.

The other dances on the program were Gossamer Gallants, and Promethean Fire. Gossamer Gallants, a crowd-pleaser but pleasant withal, is the sort of thing that makes serious dance fans frown down their lorgnettes at Paul Taylor. I didn’t much care for the insect headdresses that the boys wore (it made them look like early airplane pilots or, alternatively, peasants in Breughel), nor for the wings worn by everyone, but I enjoyed the swarming animal enthusiasm of the piece. What we have here, to the tune of chestnuts from The Bartered Bride, is the birds and bees minus the birds. The girls shimmy their hips, play with their springy antennae, and form a lovely desultory kick line at the end. The boys begin hungry and eager, but end up cowed and defeated. You’re reminded of the insect species of which the males do not survive the reproductive process. Perpend. Promethean Fire is a grand ballet, despite its grandiose name, which hitherto had induced me to buy tickets for programs on which it didn’t appear. It’s so good, in fact, that I swallowed my severe distaste for Leopold Stokowski’s ponderous Bachestrations, to which Taylor responds with an expert essay in structure and decomposition. There’s an extremely intriguing moment, repeated twice I think, in which the dancers each appear to be emerging from a stationary mob, but of course no one is stationary.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company is an ensemble of individuals; there is no distinction between principals and corps. It doesn’t take long to recognize the dancers, and by the third season they’re as familiar as friends. This makes writing about them difficult. You can say all the obvious things about Michael Trusnovec or Laura Halzack or Kathleen’s new favorite, Parisa Khobdeh, but quite aside from the fact that such remarks aren’t going to mean a thing to readers who haven’t seen these virtuosos dance, they don’t capture what you want to say, which is really rather foolish and personal. There is a rigor about Paul Taylor that reminds us that the dancers, whatever their private lives, exist for us on stage only; ideally, no one would know anything about them when they weren’t in costume. Anyone who has looked into Taylor’s autobiography, Private Domain, will know what I’m talking about. On the whole, his dances are so compelling that the mind does not too often wander into irrelevancies.


I’m very unhappy about the Dharun Ravi conviction, and I hope that it will be overturned on appeal. It’s what lawyers call a bad case, which was already evident in Ravi’s counsel’s rejection of the plea bargain. Extremely conservative when it comes to the making of laws — there can’t be too few, in my book — I have no time for the singling out of “hate” crimes, which, as here, seem to distort a proper view of causation. Call the defendant what you like, it was established to my satisfaction, by Ian Parker’s account in The New Yorker, that the role of his silly prank in Tyler Clementi’s decision to commit suicide was immaterial at best. Dharun Ravi has been punished for treating his late roommate with political incorrectness, and no one else has been punished. This seems very wrong. Rutgers University and Tyler Clementi’s parents are, to my mind, far more culpable — they were the adults in Tyler’s life, but they were useless to him. Dharun Ravi, for his part, was expected to figure out his responsibilities on his own. He may be a jerk, but I feel deeply sorry for him.

Weekend Note:
18 March 2012

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotham Diary:
16 March 2012

Friday, March 16th, 2012

Something odd and new and very agreeable happened yesterday. As I was cleaning up after dinner, thinking about Friends With Kids in the feeling way that movies that get to you leave you with, I understood that the life that I’m leading is every bit as chic, amusing and romantic as the lives of the characters in that romantic comedy set in New York City. And probably a bit more sophisticated. The movie stars’ glamour had bowled me over, as it always does. (What would Jon Hamm look life if he were sitting here thinking my thoughts and trying to decide whether to continue the struggle with prose or to go boil a couple of eggs? Would Jennifer Westfeldt even talk to me?) But I felt no envy. I did not want to trade in my familiar apartment for their art-directed abodes. I would be happy to stay put. And I’ve no doubt in the world that I owe this enlightened tranquillity to the same thing that unites the screwball couple in Friends With Kids: a little boy. In my case, a grandson.

When people, such as Jennifer Westfeldt — the writer and director of Friends With Kids — says that she doesn’t feel the “urge” to have children, I want to bang her on the head and ask her how she thinks she’s going to have grandchildren otherwise? This is a transformation of the complaint that young people get from their parents about “giving us grandchildren.” Forget about giving your parents grandchildren. You should be thinking about giving yourself grandchildren.


The movie’s title, as well as its ad campaign, suggest an ensemble piece in the tradition of The Big Chill. But Friends With Kids is something else altogether: a screwball comedy with children. Other recent examples of the genre are The Switch and Life As We Know It. The basic screwball formula calls for a couple of romantic leads who, for one reason or another, don’t see themselves as a couple. They’re eventually roused from this delusion (but not at the same time) by the squirmy jealousy that each of them feels when confronted by the sight of the other in the amorous arms of a third party. The new wrinkle is a magical effect attributed to children: children, by making their minders realize What’s Important In Life, open their eyes to the virtue and attractiveness of their partners in child-rearing. The magic is paradoxical, because children also wear you down so badly that you live like a subsistence farmer. In this regard, they play the role of Hitting Bottom in addiction narratives.

Friends With Kids varies the formula by eliding the wearing-down part. The lead couple’s friends have children who wear them down, but little Joe, the darling baby boy(played by uncredited actors) parented by best friends Julie (Ms Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott), is an angel who never causes the slightest inconvenience. Julie and Jason go right on with their well-appointed, tidy lives; stray toys do not litter their living rooms. This fantasy is palpable during the film, but it doesn’t get in the way, because the movie has an altogether different point to make. Friends With Kids isn’t a film about a couple of bright thirtysomethings who think that it would be great to have a kid (before it’s too late), only to find out (too late) that children can bring an apocalyptic end to life as we know it. This is a film about a couple of bright thirtysomethings who think that it would be great to have a kid without the grown-up mess of lapsed personal hygeine and moribund sex lives. Julie and Jason, observing their friends, conclude that kids can’t wreck the romance if the romance hasn’t produced the kids. So they’ll have their baby and share responsibility and continue the hunt for a soul-mate. Which turns out to be brilliant, because they would never have found one another otherwise.

Despite its glossy finish, Friends With Kids is not slick. The comedy is made to digest an enormous amount of discomfort. Two of the friends, the couple played by Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm, begin to fall apart almost immediately, and not attractively; Ms Wiig takes on an embalmed expression in her first scene as a new parent. Two other friends, the couple played by Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd, are reduced to a semi-slovenliness that does not go unnoticed by either. Julie and Jason, for all their kempt self-possession, worry greatly about finding love, and they do so on a quiet back-channel that has nothing to do with the much-discussed problem of finding a lover. The sweetness of the film’s production values (the appealing actors, the chic settings) coats a good deal of quiet bitterness. When everyone gathers at a Vermont ski resort for a weekend of fun (and for the pleasure of getting to know Julie’s and Jason’s significant others, played by Ed Burns and Megan Fox), the good times are irreparably soured when Mr Hamm’s character takes his marital frustrations out on his friends. The realism of this scene, with its madly self-destructive surge, is almost unwatchable.

There’s only one inexplicable moment in Friends With Kids. Julie’s mother (Lee Bryant) comes to babysit. Holding Joe in her arms, she tells her daughter that she ought to be asked to do this more often. Julie says, hesitantly, “I didn’t know you felt that way.” What planet? What planet?

Gotham Diary:
15 March 2012

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

On the day after a Remicade infusion, I am usually very quiet. I wouldn’t call it “tired.” Being tired is unpleasant, and I feel fine. But I also feel disembodied and inert. So it makes sense to go to the movies this afternoon — Friends With Kids is showing right around the corner — and try to be more productive tomorrow.


I’m reading Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson’s history of the digital universe, and wondering how much I’m going to get out of it, given my inability to grasp the basics of electronics. I have read no end of descriptions of vacuum tubes and capacitors and relays, but the question always remains, what do these things do? There’s a slippage, and suddenly I’m on the other side of a gulf from whomever it is who’s trying to explain these things to me. My ignorance has a deep tap root.

I had never really thought of the hydrogen bomb as complicated, although of course it is. I simply thought that it was big. The challenge, I gather, was to assemble the parts of the bomb in a way that maximized the impact, within the device itself, of shock waves generated by preliminary explosions. Bombs within bombs. And the engineering behind this assembly required masses of trajectory calculations — reiterative calculations in which the outputs became the inputs. (I hope that I’ve got that right.) The calculations were beyond the capabilities of even the largest staff of human computers (people with adding machines). So the ENIAC machine was put together at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering, in Philadelphia, which was home to a lot of electronic innovation at the time. The ENIAC was a very powerful calculator, but it was not what we would call a computer. I’m not sure why.   

Two years ago, I read James Gleick’s engrossing tome, The Information, without learning very much of anything. I took away the imp of a paradox: information is that which we don’t know yet (your name, for example, is not information to you). But the meaning of Claude Shannon’s theories slipped right by me, and I never understood Maxwell’s demons, even when I held the book upside down and shook it. I’m afraid that I simply lack the basic knowledge of mechanics, if that’s the word, that would permit me to be meaningfully addressed by a writer on these subjects.

I’ve just taken a minute to glance over the beginning of the Wikipedia entry for “relays.” I read it as if with two brains. One brain saw how relays work. The other brain couldn’t figure out what relays do. Or maybe… It wouldn’t hurt to have someone to talk this over with.

I knew a few engineers, once, fellow students at the college radio station, and whenever they talked “engineering,” I stopped paying attention. I had serious cultural problems with engineering students, with their dress, their manners, their sense of humor. I had never met people like them before; I’d lived in a world where everyone was expected to behave like polite ladies and gentlemen, and engineers seemed to have an entirely different approach to the task of being decent human beings. In those days, I took electricity entirely for granted, and never imagined that I’d one day regret not having been sat down and and shown what it can do. 

Gotham Diary:
14 March 2012

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

The weather was so balmy this afternoon that I walked home from the Hospital for Special Surgery after the Remicade infusion. As always, I felt very lucky to walk along the river on my way somewhere. I wish that the Greenway were unbroken; I’d walk down to see Will. I think that I might just about manage that.


Last night, I watched three movies — in the days before infusions, I have learned to take it easy — and one of them was John Cromwell’s In Name Only (RKO, 1939). I don’t know why this picture, with Carole Lombard, Cary Grant, and Kay Francis, isn’t a better-known classic. It’s quick and sharp, and the stars make sure that it never gets drippy. Kay Francis plays a scheming adventuress who has married Cary Grant for his money, and then charmed the pants off his parents so that they take her side when their son, having taken the measure of his new wife a tad too late, cools toward her. Needless to say, she refuses to give him a divorce. One fine day, he meets Carole Lombard, and they two of them get along like a couple of screwballs. (How come they never made a screwball comedy together?) Now Cary really wants a divorce, and Kay gives in, or says she does. She goes off to Europe with Cary’s parents while Cary buys a house for Carole, complete with a nursery. When Kay returns, it appears that she never had any intention of following through with the divorce, so Cary gets drunk and falls asleep in front of an open window on Christmas Eve, catching pneumonia. In a fantastic finale, Kay reveals her true colors to Carole outside Cary’s room at the hospital, unaware that his parents have slipped in behind her. Cary is still pretty sick when the film fades to black, but a happy ending is promised.

Kay Francis is magnificently odious, and, in two scenes, when she’s being candid with a crony, she is positively corrupt. It’s an extraordinary performance, because she’s so beautiful, or at any rate so beautifully put together, that you’re always glad to see her, even when she’s being monstrous (which is always). Carole Lombard, in contrast, is almost scraggly, pinched, slightly gone to seed. Which is good for the movie: it makes you root for her. Cary Grant, who gets to do a delirium scene for real (not that he overplays it), looks younger than ever, but in his scenes alone with Kay he is all business — Mr Lucky, almost. Fans of Vertigo will be amused by the dispatch with which he shoos off the unwanted attentions of Kay’s best friend, Helen Vinson.

The film is set in Connecticut by day (mostly) and Manhattan by night. The production is done to a turn, and not a degree further; it’s as though art director Van Nest Polglase had just read the entire oeuvre of John P Marquand. The clothes are simply perfect; no film that I’ve seen makes a better case for 1939 as the Best Year in Twentieth Century fashion, at least so far as day wear is concerned. There is really no good reason for women to have deviated from the cut and shape on display in this movie. At one point, Cary takes Carole to the Harvard Game on the train, and she wears a short jacket not unlike one that Kathleen used to have, with big buttons. The only more captivating outfit in all of cinema is Grace Kelly’s Jacques Fath knockoff (the green suit) in Rear Window.

Could it be that nobody thinks highly of Carole Lombard anymore? Sure, everyone knows My Man Godfrey, but she’s something of a freak in that. Nothing Sacred and Made For Each Other aren’t as well known as they used to be (are they?), and To Be Or Not To Be got remade by Anne Bancroft. My favorite Lombard picture is Mr and Mrs Smith, but nobody likes that one, because it’s a screwball comedy by Alfred Hitchcock. Which makes it really the darkest of Hitchcock’s always funny movies. Lombard had a tendency to scream, and she also never shook that fruity early-Thirties studio dialect. (Francis is even worse, of course; plus, she lisps like Elmer Fudd.)

I discovered In Name Only about twenty years ago, leafing through Leonard Maltin, who called it “a solid soaper.” I was inclined to agree at the time, but now I must insist that it is brighter and more charming than that. As I say, its success owes as much to its speed as it does to its cast. While never rushing the action, Cromwell never lingers. The jolly note struck now and then by Roy Webb’s score is a bit off, but it doesn’t linger, either. Do us both a favor and get to know this movie.


In the current New York Review of Books, Giles Harvey reviews the Melrose novels, and, sure enough, he quotes the Emily Price sentence. I wonder what Edward St Aubyn makes of the inevitability of this extraordinarily felicitous phrase.

Gotham Diary:
13 March 2012

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

We are very quiet today. Kathleen is in bed; she had an attack of food poisoning, yesterday afternoon. At least that’s all we can think it might be. As in my case last week, she hasn’t run a fever. It seems very odd, these attacks, spaced too far apart to suggest contagion of any kind.

For my part, I’m all right, and my appointments for tomorrow’s Remicade infusion have been confirmed. I have no ambitions for the day beyong quietly passing through it. I’ve started reading George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. So far, I’ve learned about the origins of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton — which I was piqued to discover didn’t become “Princeton” until 1896. Before that, it was the College of New Jersey. It sort of makes me want to visit the island of Jersey, to try to get an idea of why anybody would name anything after it. Where’s New Guernsey?


After yesterday’s errands, I found myself unmotivated to do anything productive, so I sat down with Lisa Hilton’s The Horror of Love and finished it. The title is Nancy’s comment on a romantically disagreeable coincidence involving Marguerite de Gramont, one of Gaston Palewski’s many lady friends other than herself. Hilton writes,

Nancy caught Gaston dining with her in the most unfortunate of cirumstances. She had taken Peter [Rodd, her husband with whom she was no longer intimate] and his two nephews to a restaurant and there at a nearby table were Margot and Nancy’s colonel. She then invited her guests to see the Louvre by night, surely one of the loveliest sights in the world. As if they were all players in a hideous farce, there were Gaston and Margot, hand in hand. Later, she explained to Diana that what she couldn’t bear was that he had looked happy, “so dreadful to prefer the loved one to be unhappy…Oh, the horror of love.”

Hilton’s book is aptly titled and subtitled (Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London). It is not a love story. How can it be, when Gaston was never in love with Nancy? He adored her cleverness and intelligence, but these were after all traits that he might just as easily find in a male friend. It was rotten luck that Nancy had never before experienced the sexual pleasure to which Gaston introduced her, because she would otherwise have realized that there are lots of good fish in the sea. The Mediterranean Sea, not the North Sea. She had known clever and intelligent Englishmen by the dozens, but they were either gay, uninspired, or, like her husband, they preferred “to make love with ladies whose profession it was.” Gaston Palewski’s taste for charming amateurs came as a delightful surcaprise, one from which Nancy never recovered.

So she fell in love, to the extent that it’s not unintelligent to speak of unrequired passion as love. Nobody wants to read a book about that, and Hilton wisely assumes that readers will be familiar with her source material, which of course they will be, since it consists of three volumes that anybody interested in the matter will have already acquired, Love From Nancy, a selection of Nancy’s letters; the correspondence that Nancy had with Evelyn Waugh; and The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sixters (all edited by Charlotte Mosley). I think it’s safe to say that these letters are the reason for our interest in the Mitfords today; without them, we would just have a handful of interesting lives led by ladies of long-ago. Nancy’s letters bring the girls and their muddles to life. Perhaps because she never had children of her own, perhaps because she was “the lady writer,” or maybe simply because she was who she was, she encompassed her sisters in a sense of family that the others never quite shared. 

Instead of rehashing what we already know about Nancy, then, Hilton tells us what we didn’t know about the love of her life, Gaston Palewski, the son of a Polish Jew who was brought to Paris by an uncle when he was a child. Gaston grew up in relative prosperity and was well-educated, complete with a year at Brighton College and a term at Oxford (his English was fluent if heavily accented), not to mention the Sorbonne and Sciences Po’. His eventual career owed much to the good fortune of having a cousin in the military who, during World War I, had escaped from a German POW camp with none other than Charles De Gaulle. When De Gaulle made his heroic stand against the Vichy capitulation of Hitler, Gaston, by now a close friend, was among the first to recognize him at his own peril.

After World War II, De Gaulle would make Gaston the ambassador to Italy (a post which installed him in the Palazzo Farnesse, of Tosca fame), president of the Constitutional Council, and minister of scientific research. I see that there is a new book about Gaston, intriguingly subtitled “premier baron de Gaullisme.” Hilton’s account makes one wonder why Palewski’s career failed to secure him a clearer place in the firmament. It is suggested this his fluency in the language of amour caused him to be regarded as a lightweight by men less doués in this regard. Perhaps his handicap was nothing more complicated than the bachelorhood that he did not bring to an end until he was nearly seventy. Instead of Nancy, he married a Franco-American with a Polish title.

Curiously, Hilton’s assumption that we already know how ardenly Nancy longed for Gaston, that we’ve already wondered if Gaston’s wedding announcement caused Nancy to succumb to Hodgkins’ Disease, that, in short, we’re all on the same page about the horror of love — all of this frees her to write give us an assessment of Nancy’s career that is free of romantic contortions. Among other things, Hilton sets us straight about Nancy’s “denunciation” of her sister, Diana Mosley, in 1940. Diana was not interned in Holloway Prison on Nancy’s say-so alone; nor did Nancy one day up and take a taxi to Whitehall in order to stir up trouble. The inquiry into the possibility that Diana might be a dangerous traitor was launched (unsurprisingly) by her former father-in-law, Lord Moyne, and Nancy was called in as a character witness, to confirm what the Home Office already suspected. It must have been an awful spot to be in, and it’s hard, even now, to say that Nancy did the right thing. But the notion that she acted out of spite or jealousy (Diana’s having married not one but two handsome, rich men) is an idle one. Diana never did grasp that the Nazis were bad eggs, and there was no question about her welcoming an invasion. It was her own testimony that put her away. Hilton quotes the advisory committee’s judgment: “It would be quite impossible, having regard to her expressed attitude and her past activities with the leaders of Nazi Germany, to allow her to remain at liberty in these critical days.”

Hilton also indulges in some righteous America-bashing. (Don ‘t expect any strenuous objections from me.)

From her Parisian perspective on the transatlantic culture of the 1940s and 1950s, Nancy saw America as representative of precisely the opposite of this cherished list of values. She greatly enjoyed herself in the role of heretic. Sixty years after The Blessing‘s publication, it is more true than ever that “it is considered nowadays perfectly all right to throw any amount of aspersions at poor old France and England, but one tiny word reflecting anything but exaggerated love for new rich America is thought to be the worst of taste.” Unlike many of Nancy’s declared passions, including her devotion to France, which she exaggerated to tease friends like Evelyn, her loathing for America was entirely serious. In 1957 she told the Herald Tribune, “I hate everything that has to do with American civilization, your plastics, your skyscrapers, refrigerators, psychoanalysis and Coca-Cola.” One really is not allowed to say things like that anymore. [!] People whom Americans term”liberals” can get away with criticizing particular political policies, the injustice of big business, violence or racism perhaps, but to declare that one loathes everything about America is blasphemous. To be declaredly anti-American is to be instantly dismissed, as Nancy was by Rhoda Koenig in The Sunday Times: “Mitford’s anti-Americanism was merely the more obvious expression of her unpleasant personality.” Only nasty people, after all, dislike America.

Zut! I only wish that Hilton had worked into this passage Nancy’s earnest objection to “youth culture,” which, if not the root of the American problem, is certainly its most toxic outgrowth.

As I mentioned the other day, I’ve been reading the British edition of The Horror of Love, which is, so far, the only one. I’ll be curious to see if it comes out here.


Gotham Diary:
Playing It Straight
12 March 2012

Monday, March 12th, 2012

According to Stephen Holden’s review in the Times, Lasse Hallström’s lovely new movie, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is based on an “absurdist” novel by Paul Torday, a late bloomer who has written a clutch of novels in the past couple of years. I was shocked to read this, because even though the adaptation does begin with a lot of giggling and spluttering about the absurdity of setting up a salmon-fishing operation anywhere in the Arabian Peninsula, it swiftly moves into deeply romantic territory, with a Disney-spectacular buildup to the exulting sight of a large fish jumping high out of the water. By this point, nobody has been laughing for some time. By the end of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, I’d completely forgotten how funny it was at the start.

Mr Holden writes,

Whether Harriet and Fred will get together is a question that hovers over the movie. The appeal of the film depends on the charm of Mr. McGregor and Ms. Blunt, whose polite but discreetly charged connection is the story’s emotional center.

Well, yeah. Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt engage in some very old-fashioned movie magic here. This is not one of those stories about Brits who are too buttoned-up to make easy connections. For one thing, Mr McGregor plays a Scotsman, Alfred Jones (it’s nice to hear him speak his native tongue), who is not at all shy. For the other, Ms Blunt’s character, Harriet Chetwold-Talbot, is attached to a military officer who goes missing in Afghanistan, and Ms Blunt makes you feel what she’s going through as she worries about him. The salmon project, conceived by a wealthy sheik, brings Alfred and Harriet together, and it’s immediately clear that they are both very kind and decent people. What’s more, this kindness and decency are invigorating for both of them — certainly for Alfred, who is inspired to reconsider his stale marriage to a banker who has slipped into a habit of belittling him. How do we get from kindness and decency to romance? That’s where the magic comes in. The actors know that no one is going to question their characters’ falling in love if they show them falling in love, and Ms Blunt and Mr McGregor are more than equal to the challenge. As Mr Holden notes, you’re not sure until the last minute that the colleagues will become a couple, owing to prior commitments, but a fondness of Shakespearean charm is so well established by the middle of the movie that it almost doesn’t matter how they end up.

Did I say something about no laughing? Kristin Scott Thomas, as the Prime Minister’s press secretary, unfurls her best dragon suit and incinerates the fools who make her suffer. Is there a more cynical walk of life than that of the press secretary? We begin by laughing, but soon we simply beam: it’s impossible to settle on whether the shameless press secretary is funnier than Ms Scott Thomas playing the shameless press secretary. You’re glad that she’s not the Prime Minister, though; she’d undoubtedly be provoked to launch a few nukes by sheer unmanageable exasperation with human feebleness.

I want to note that the actor who plays the sheik, Amr Waked, does a magnificent job with what might have been an insufferable role, bringing fresh moves to a stock character.  


The weather has warmed up, so I ran Wednesday’s errands, such as they were, today; on Wednesday itself, I’ll be at the hospital, for the entire afternoon, doing the Remicade rag. In addition to the errands, I thought that I’d go to the Shake Shack, so I packed an old cloth napkin and headed up the street. The line was longish and not moving, so I ran the errands and came back; the line was just as long but it was moving. I pulled out a recent, not the latest, New York Review of Books, and read Elaine Blair on Michel Houellebecq.

Before Les particules élémentaires even came out in English, I had a copy of the original, one of the first books that I bought from abroad on the Internet. I read perhaps forty or fifty pages before putting it down. Not only was it unpleasant, it was boring. Horribly, horribly boring. Thereafter, I kept up with the reviews of Houellebecq’s new books, but was never tempted to buy one. Everything about the man and his work seemed disagreeable, without being interesting. Eventually, I stopped reading the reviews as well. I was drawn to Elaine Blair’s review of The Map and the Territory because the NYRB cover headline announced that “Houellebecq Goes Off Sex.” What, then?

I read the piece at the Shake Shack, and it was in the middle of a sumptuous double Shackburger that I had the added satisfaction of reading this:

Houellebecq likes to scorn the idea of individual personality, which to him is all a matter of minor differences. … In writing about love, it would be precious and boring, from Houellebecq’s point of view, to go on about her unique qualities and his unique qualities and the subtle ways in which all of their qualities draw them together and pull them apart. There is an element of expediency in this position, for Houellebecq has no apparent ability to conceive of different personalities with unique qualities. He is a novelist with only one character in him.

So it wasn’t the sex that turned me off, or not just the sex. It was the sheer tedium of following a solitary character pace in the cage of his unimaginative consciousness.

There’s something almost as good later on; by this time, sadly, there was nothing left but my chocolate shake. “The [new] novel affects the reader like a glamorous advertisement for work; it mightmake one want to work, but obscurely, and not at the real-life tasks that one is supposed to be doing.” Actually, that’s better, because it’s not really about Houellebecq; it’s about the alternative world of advertising, in which the idea of effort is annihilated by great design, and we see ourselves in states of being that do not involve actual doing. It’s like the vision that Levenger catalogues invariably produce: You see yourself in a café, writing a novel by hand. As you fill the pages of a cunning notebook, ink flows from your exceptional pen with the consistency of mayonnaise.

Weekend Note:
10 March 2012

Saturday, March 10th, 2012


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotham Diary:
Apples and Oranges
9 March 2012

Friday, March 9th, 2012

When, at the end of Amber Dermont’s debut novel, The Starboard Sea, we learn what it was, the terrible thing that the narrator, Jason, did to his best friend Cal, the thing that, unbeknownst to everyone else in the boys’ world of privilege, led Cal to hang himself from a pipe in their prep school dorm room, we wonder if it was so terrible, and we think that perhaps Cal overreacted. But not right away. Our immediate response is to feel swamped by Jason’s guilt and Cal’s despair: it was an awful thing to do, largely because it was meant to be awful. And when the excitement of the discovery subsides, and we get used to knowing what we have waited hundred of pages to find out, we recall that teenagers are never more volatile, reckless, or cruel (just as they are never more ecstatic) than when they feel that they’re in love. For many people, most of them far from the unluckiest, love is the most painful of life’s lessons. Almost everyone pulls through somehow. Dermont has given us, in her novel, the shadow of a boy who didn’t, and her achievement is wonderfully grave.  

The achievement is unfortunately qualified by a strategic miscalculation that Dermont is hardly the first to make. If I had an intern, I’d ask for a list of the instances in which I’ve complained that a book would have been much better had it been told in the third person, and not in the first. There are only two occasions for employing the first person in fiction: when the narrator is almost an exclusively an observer, someone who brushes up against the action only just enough to put the reader into the picture, and who never does anything to distract the reader from the principal characters; and when the narrator’s very voice — meaning his or her personality, his or her view of the case — is the story. (What makes Rebecca, which ought to have been just another disposable gothic potboiler, so thrilling is that it rises to both of these occasions not only supremely well but simultaneously.) The Starboard Sea meets neither of these conditions. Jason Prosper is a high-school senior, eighteen going on nineteen. Despite the world of privilege in which he has grown up, he remains a normally, inescapably callow teenager. As a result, he talks about his world — and he talks about it at great length — with a combination of fatuousness and condescension that makes the first half of the novel, before the story really gets going, a slog to read.

Some of the prose lapses might very well have been committed in the third person as well. Dermont’s diction is not the finest; her syntax can be shaky (I found two instances of dangling modifier), but, worse, she is drawn to the bad fine writing that makes nouns out of verbs. “He was trying to make a point about World War I and the Lost Generation,” Jason recounts, sketching a teacher’s frustration, “and he was stunned when almost no one understood what he was referencing.” Wouldn’t an artless teenager have said that no one knew what he was talking about? (What makes Americans say these things? It can’t be that we have all read too many fucking manuals.) There is a touch of Harlequin exceptionalism —

Many of the girls I considered to be pretty had soft, rounded features. Small eyes, creamy skin. This girl was different. Her features called attention to the high planes of her cheeks and forehead, the sharp angles of her lips and eyes. Unlike Bristin’s or Diana’s faces, which begged and invited “Admire me,” her face had a quiet authority. A frontier quality that said, “I am not to be put on display. I am not here to be looked at.” She stood tall. Had I not seen her crawling through a window, I might have mistaken her for a teacher. Even then, I was certain of her beauty, but I was also certain that a person could miss this about her.

— that is not only wildly exotic in this rich kids’ setting, but strangely belabored, coming from a boy. We might interpret the last sentence as a sign that Jason feels manfully protective of the mysterious girl, but whether or not this point is worth arguing, it turns out that Jason’s sexual satisfactions have been largely homosexual. Make no mistake: The Starboard Sea is no coming-out novel. Jason clearly subscribes to Gore Vidal’s theory that there are no homosexuals, only homosexual acts. The boy he still loves, Cal, the dead boy, comes round to this view, too, but too late, too late to forestall a brutally cruel homosexual act.

And a third-person narrator might have been just as annoying about Jason’s world. The book abounds in throwaway mentions of Dorrian’s and “gin-and-tonic lockjaw” that are little more than exclusive secret handshakes all but intended to intensify the smugness of knowing readers. (A joke on me: when I asked Kathleen if she knew what Head of the Charles meant, she shook her head, but, before I could snort at Dermont’s obscurantism, Kathleen said, “I didn’t know any rowers.”) But there might have been more description and less name-tossing had an older and presumably wiser head been doing the talking. Intelligent children of privilege, at least the ones who aren’t sociopathic, don’t know what to make of their benefits, which may have always been there for them, but which are so palpably not there for most people. They’re insecure about wealth in a way that’s different from the parvenu’s: kids don’t know what it means, for example, to have a full-length portrait of one’s great-grandmother, painted by Sargent no less, in one’s dining room. (Parvenues are all to sure that they do.) Whatever it means, it’s beyond the compass of adolescent understanding. (I’m talking about the teenagers who are bright enough to know that having a Sargent hanging on the walls of one’s home is extraordinary — very much Dermont’s territory.

The tendency to confuse apples and oranges because they’re both colorful ends up undercutting, and almost trivializing, what ought to have been the most riveting angle of the story, which is not why Cal hanged himself. Running in parallel to Jason’s story about Cal, which he dribbles out in suitably suspenseful doses, there is what turns out to be a case of manslaughter, pieced together by Jason in his capacity as amateur detective. Jason believes, understandably but groundlessly, that the death would never have occurred if he had only… been there for her. He concludes that he has let not one but two lovers down. He lets himself off the hook, I’m happy to say, with a vision of his two BFFs watching over him benevolently from their fixture among the stars. But he never grasps the adult differentiation between the bad thing that he did within an attachment of love, and the bad thing that his classmates did in the course of a hazing prank.  

I can’t think why Dermont didn’t see that this was bound to happen, especially if she undertook to make Jason’s voice plausibly adolescent. A friend suggested that there are a lot of writers who see themselves as Peter Pans, capable of entering into and recreating boyish states of mind, but I don’t charge Dermont with delusions of grandeur. I think she felt that her story would be more engrossing if it were told by a brokenhearted lover. I concede that it would have been more work to engage the reader from the perspective of an omniscient observer, but that’s what distinguishes the stories that you never forget — and Dermont does tell one of those — from the novels that you want to read again.



Gotham Diary:
8 March 2012

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

At 4:30 yesterday morning, I was awakened by severe gastric distress. The crisis came and went quickly, but I was left queasily inert for most of the following day. It seemed pretty clearly to be a case of food poisoning, which was disturbing because I’d made the cheeseburger myself, just the way I always make them. Perhaps the meat was undercooked; I can’t think of another explanation. I’m afraid that I’d somewhat arrogantly thought that food bought at our local markets must be safe as a matter of course, because this is, after all, the Upper East Side.

Although distressed by the loss of a day’s work, I made the most of the idea that I’m not supposed to feel well anyway right now. I’ve got a Remicade infusion scheduled for next week, but it has been thirteen weeks since the last one, not too far shy of twice as long as the recommended dosage, which is eight weeks. I did a fair amount of reading, considering, and I watched a couple of bleakish videos. Kathleen came home early and we ordered in Chinese — wonton soup for me, which was all the appealed. I read Dexter Filkins’s piece about Recip Tayyap ErdoÄŸan and Turkey’s power blocs in The New Yorker, and was gratified that my picture of the Turkish prime minister was enhanced but not altered by the report. Yet more arrogance. At eleven or so, without having had so much as a glass of wine, I took my pills and stretched out.


The movies that I watched yesterday were on my list of things to see, but on Tuesday night, while I did the ironing, I saw something that Fossil Darling had caught over the weekend on TCM, Tony Richardson’s The Entertainer, one of Laurence Olivier’s most interesting performances. It’s interesting partly because Olivier subdues his natural exuberance until his performance blends in with the ensemble cast. He does this, I think, not out of some professional scrupulousness but because he understands that toning himself down is the best way to convey how bitter and mean the character of Archie Rice is. Archie is a music-hall veteran who has never achieved his father’s fame, probably because he doesn’t like people much and only wants to see his name in lights; in a field that demanded unstinting generosity from its stars, Archie is doomed to mediocrity, no matter how well he sings or dances. It is also interesting to see Olivier in a play by John Osborne. Only Olivier in Pinter could be more bizarre.

I’m minded to say that the entertainer of the title isn’t Archie but his father, Billy, played by Roger Livesey, a fixture who would later play the Duke of St Bungay in The Pallisers. Billy is persuaded to come out of retirement to save Archie’s catastrophic fortunes. The producers are ecstatic: this is the man they’ve been wanting to put on the stage, not Archie. Archie’s vanity is hardly wounded; he just wants the box office. He’s neither smart nor curious enough to grasp that British culture has undergone a sea change: the bits of raucous rock ‘n’ roll that make Archie’s eyes roll herald the Beatles, so soon to prevail upon the scene. And although I can’t identify anything particularly imperalistic about the music hall tradition, there is a felt connection between the fading of the latter and the end of the Empire, signaled here by the Suez crisis that claims the life of one of Archie’s sons, played by the young and rocksome Albert Finney.

Another star in The Entertainer is Brenda de Banzie, whom you may recall from the second of Hitchcock’s versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much. At first presented as a stylish matron, de Banzie’s character is shown to be a drab criminal fraught with misgivings; there is a touch of Deborah Kerr about her passion for doing the right thing in the end. In The Entertainer, she plays Phoebe, Archie’s lost, somewhat boozy second wife. In the middle of the movie, Pheobe has a sort of breakdown, and erupts in a tirade that combines “gentleman callers” with “could have been a contender.” It was a revelatory, but at the same time hilarious moment. I had never occurred to me that John Osborne’s explosive transformation of English theatre was powered at least in part by his study of American developments.

I never knew about Joan Plowright until she was an old lady, more or less, and I always wondered what Olivier, whose widow she was, saw in her. Now that I’ve seen The Entertainer, it doesn’t seem so daft. Plowright isn’t beautiful by any means but she is almost pretty in a pert way, and when she was young and thin and her voice about an octave higher, her intelligence must have seemed extraordinary.

Alan Bates is in The Entertainer, too. You’d almost never know it.


Thanks to Imodium, I was able to complete my circuit of Wednesday-afternoon errands without distress. I walked into the barbershop at precisely the right moment: Willy was free. While I sat in the chair being trimmed, three men walked in, the last one in for a longish wait. I stopped in at the Video Room to return The Entertainer, and there I picked up two used DVDs, Margin Call, which I saw and liked, and Love Crime, which I didn’t see and am afraid of hating. But it stars Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludovine Sagnier. I hope that it’s as gripping as Swimming Pool, which Ms Sagnier made with the other féroce anglaise, Charlotte Rampling. (I adore Jane Birkin, but she is not féroce.)

At Crawford Doyle, I stopped to look in the window first, and what did I see but The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London, by Lisa Hilton. I could tell, somehow, that this was another of those British imports that the shop carries, especially when a Mitford is involved — and it wasn’t just that I hadn’t heard of the book that tipped me off. There was something about the typography. I wondered how much it would cost. The shop doesn’t overcharge for these titles; I know what they’d cost me if I ordered them from Amazuke. A steal, I thought, at $44. And what do I read on the first page? Suffice it to say that Gaston Palewski was not, not, not, as I had always assumed, and doubtless by the Mitford Industry encouraged to assume, the scion of an aristocratic Polish family domiciled in Paris since, say, the days of Queen Marie LeszczyÅ„ska. No.

Then to Greenberg’s for cookies and cake, and a stop at the bank. All the while, I was reading, whenever forced to stand still, Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel. I’m sorry, but how is it that this book is not in the canon? It is certainly the funniest book about novel-writing and publishing that I have ever read, or that I expect to read. The title character is a lower-middle teenager with no experience of life who resolves to escape her tawdry surroundings by writing best-sellers, and, guess what, she succeeds at the first go. This is not to say that her publisher can’t find anything in her manuscript to improve.

He sat down at his desk again, aware that his questions were arousing her suspicion, and shuffled in a business-like way through a folder of papers. “Miss Deverell,” he began, “we should like to publish your book, as I have said, and I hope we shall make a success of it. In a capricious world, no one can be sure. Obviously, there are some suggestions to put forward and some alterations we hope you will make.” He smiled, but felt authority ebbing from him [Angel Deverell has this effect on everybody.] “That is usual,” he said. “For instance, we cannot have a character called the Duchess of Devonshire as there is one …[sic] in everyday life; if a duchess’s life could ever be so described. But that can soon be changed. We can easily find a way out of that. Perhaps you have erred on the lavish side. I don’t know much about grandeur, and great establishments, but I thought we cut down and manage with one butler, eh?” His jocularity was coldly received. “May I give you some more tea?”

“…if a duchess’s life could ever be so described.” The amiable publisher is thinking that no real Duchess of Devonshire could colorably bring a case of libel, so completely implausible is Angel’s colorful account. Ha! The D of D of the day, now the dowager, Nancy Mitford’s youngest sister, brought a libel case against one of the London papers, at about the same age as Angel Deverell, when her name was mixed up with that of another sister, Jessica. She was awarded thousand pounds and bought a nice fur coat.