Archive for April, 2012

Gotham Diary:
Betty and the Brontës
30 April 2012

Monday, April 30th, 2012

There is still a good chance that I’ll get to the job that I’d planned to start after lunch: straightening up the refrigerator. It’s truly a job that I would almost do anything else to postpone, but I really couldn’t not sit down first and say a word about A Game of Hide and Seek, which I continued reading after lunch, and soon actually finished. It’s the ninth of Taylor’s novels that I’ve read — all the ones that you can buy off the shelf in the United States. The three remaining titles have been ordered by Crawford Doyle, and I can’t decide whether I hope that they arrive before I leave for Amsterdam and London at the end of next week. Also ordered, Nicola Beauman’s biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, which revealed the extramarital affair that Taylor had for many years with a painter whom she met at a Communist Party meeting.

I’ve read nine books, more or less in a row, by the same author, expecting, at the beginning of each one, to find my appetite sated by familiarity, but that has never happened, and in every case I’ve been sucked into the new story quite as compellingly as if I weren’t out to read everything by the author. Formally, the books are hugely different. None of the others, for example, has Hide and Seek‘s twenty-year narrative caesura; nor does any of the other books (that I’ve read) focus so intently upon a single attachment, which could be called the love story of Harriet and Vesey if that were not exactly what Hide and Seek Isn’t. The first half of the book takes place in the late Twenties; Harriet and Vesey have only just ceased to be children. Neither knows how to behave with the other. Harriet is painfully shy, and not only that: love seems to cause her real pain (which doesn’t make it any less desirable). Not the kind of agony that Derek Parfitt uses as the test for his propositions, assuming that we would do anything to avoid it and, if we were good, anything to spare others its misery, but pain nonetheless; you wouldn’t know to look at her that she’s in love. And Vesey is an impertinent, insistent autodidact, determined to learn nothing from anyone. The last days of their last childish summer together come to a Tennysonian sunset, and, after a spell of working in a dress shop, Harriet marries somebody else, a solicitor of substance whose mother used to be a star of the West End.

Then comes the break, and everything has changed when Vesey and Harriet meet at a dance as adults. For one thing, they know how to express the fact that they were in love and have never stopped loving the other — and they do so without talking. Tables have turned: Harriet is a proper provincial matron (High Wycombe?), while Vesey is an itinerant supporting actor (he plays Laertes when Hamlet comes to town). You wouldn’t think it possible, but the novel takes a turn towards Verdi territory when Harriet’s husband, Charles, decides not only to be jealous but to throw scenes. (“No woman,” Harriet reflects, “could have bided her time, as he had.”) There’s a sensational ensemble number with Charles and his dodgy law partner and the law partner’s dodgy wife (who thought that the “worse” in “for better or worse” would be her husband, nothing additional) standing about like aristocrats in Don Carlo or Otello, while Harriet drops a crystal glass, kneels to gather the fragments, cuts her self, and is swiftly joined by Vesey, who wraps her bleeing wound in a handkerchief, oblivious of the others. It’s the most exuberantly thrilling scene that I’ve ever read in any novel — any novel that wasn’t supposed to be thrilling, that is. You can’t believe that it’s happening in an English drawing room round about the time I was born.

Taylor follows this with the most extraordinary leap. Skipping over the lovers as if they weren’t there, she writes about Charles’ invigoration: having a grievance against his wife puts a spring in his step.

His attitude toward his mother was part of the change. Now he talked of her a great deal — as she had been as an actress, and strove to remember some of those successes which at the time he had resented. He seemed all of a sudden to know a great deal about the stage without everr having gone much to the theatre. A photograph of Julia as Cleopatra, with hair low on her brow, looped and strung about with pearls and looking bad-tempered, was discovered among some old letters and left propped on his desk. He often spoke of her precarious and arduous life, although she had been, as he said, at the very top of her profession.

Julia herself, the old ageing vamp, finds “a new lease on life” in her turn, as the direct result of Charles’s new affection. So does that of the granddaughter who takes after her, despite her fanciful dream that Vesey, and not Charles, is her father. (The truth is betrayed by an unconscious gesture right out of Julia’s playbook.) Only gradually do we come back to Harriet, or rather to what is now her Big Problem: how to remain respectable whilst being in love with another man. (And she is no longer pained by Vesey; he makes her happy now, as nothing else does.) I won’t go into any of this, except to say that Taylor assumes that the reader has read a few other novels and perhaps even seen a few movies (including one that rouses Julia’s indignation, involving “a middle-aged couple in raincoats, and it all took place on a railway-station”) and, in short, manages to convey Harriet’s first-time, I’ve-never-done-this-before panic without trying your patience. The end is quick and fine.


Now I’d better get Nescio under my belt, hadn’t I.

Weekend Note:
Global Crazy
27-30 April 2012

Friday, April 27th, 2012

Where did April go?

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

Okay, now I can go.


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Which would be?

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

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

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


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

Gotham Diary:
26 April 2012

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Because of Diane Keaton alone, I will see Darling Companion again. Indeed, I’ll probably buy the DVD when it comes out (which may be very soon). Ms Keaton adds another sterling late-in-life performance to her charm bracelet, and she is assisted by an extremely engaging cast, including a never-better Dianne Wiest and a literally enchanting Ayelet Zurer. They say that Meryl Streep can play anybody, and it’s true; Diane Keaton is still, at the same age, America’s sweetheart. Every good woman in the land has something to learn from her. And every man, period.

But there is a difficulty about the movie, a difficulty that remains vague and not particularly oppressive until a scene near the end that stands in the place of a climax. Instead of a climax, it is the stuff of an anecdote that you might hear at Davos or at some other assembly of extremely wealthy people whose lives are so gated that they never brush anywhere near the portals. (Except in Manhattan, which is their recreational jungle.) Let us think back to Auntie Mame, to Gloria Upson’s saga of the ping-pong balls at the country club. “And then I said…And then she said…” Gloria represents a world in which, ordinary problems having vanished, one must make the most of ping-pong. So it is here.

The Disney version of Darling Companion would have focused on the adventures of Freeway, the runaway mutt whose disappearance causes so much angst to the human beings in his new life. Having been spotted at the side of an Interstate highway and then rescued by Beth (Ms Keaton) and her daughter, Grace (Elisabeth Moss), Freeway introduces Grace to the veterinarian whom she will marry a year later, at her parents’ Rocky Mountain vacation home. While being taken out for a walk by Joseph (Kevin Kline), Beth’s career-absorbed spinal surgeon, Freeway is seduced by the delights of the hunt when a deer lopes across the path. Joseph, fatally, is talking (about his career) on a cell phone, and he is not carrying the special orange whistle that hangs in abundant supply by the door of his chalet. That is the last we see of Freeway until the very end of the movie.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t for a moment wish to know more about Freeway’s Outward-Bound experience. I was not worried about whether he was alive or dead. Mind you, I was ticked, almost as much as Beth was, that Joseph wasn’t a very responsible pet steward; I believe that, if you are going to bring a pet into your life, then you must treat it with all the care and concern that you would give to a child (short of open-ended catastrophic medical procedures, that is, which seem unredeemedly cruel to me). A dog is not “just a dog,” once you’ve signed up to feed and shelter it. But although I loved our Labrador retrievers when I was growing up, it was a very childish and unintelligent affection, and when I grew old enough to be more mature about animals, I discovered that they didn’t interest me. So I, sitting in the darkened theatre, did not worry about Freeway. I was completely absorbed by the hunt for Freeway that ties up the six characters who remain at the Rocky Mountain lodge after Grace’s wedding to her veterinarian. (Goodbye, Elisabeth Moss!) As they hunt for the dog, the humans get to know each other better in difficult situations and become better human beings. A cast as great as this one can make you forget that you’ve seen this story before, and before and before and before.

In addition to Beth and Joseph, we had Penny (Dianne Wiest), Penny’s son (Mark Duplass) — also a spinal surgeon, and a colleague of his uncle’s back in Denver — and Penny’s new boyfriend, a dodgy-sounding entrepreneur called Russell (Richard Jenkins). Also, Carmen (Ms Zurer), the caretaker at the chalet. We could start with this detail; why not. Carmen is a ravishingly pretty half-gypsy who lives full-time at a mostly-uninhabited vacation house? (The question mark imposes itself.) And why don’t Beth and Joseph seem to know her very well? And what about the house that Beth and Joe break into when, lost in a storm while out looking for Freeway, they break a window, triggering an alarm that brings rescue to their feet? Why didn’t that house have a caretaker? Surely you don’t build a lovely faux-rustic trianon in the middle of highly scenic nowhere only to shut off the power and water when you’re not around, entrusting your property to the ministrations of a silent alarm. That’s what — that’s what ordinary people would do.

Ms Keaton and Mr Kline play Beth and Joseph, right up until the would-be climax, as ordinary, accessible overachievers; if you went to college anywhere, the odds are that there was a couple just like them in your class. But Lawrence Kasdan, who directs the film and who wrote it with his wife, Meg, have appliquéd ordinary Beth and Joe onto the very extraordinary lifestyle of Hollywood producers (Mr Kasdan is also a co-producer of Darling Companion). So when, instead of climax we must have anecdote, Beth and Joseph (and the rest of their party, which also gets an assist on the ground from Sam Shepard’s crusty sherriff) resort to criminal deception, violating five or six statutes governing civil aviation. You had to be there when this story was told the first time. In the movie’s lavish re-telling, the incident is not only unfunny but creepily narcissistic.  

We are all familiar with the concept of the train wreck, the movie that is so botched that it’s actually entertaining, as long as you can make your mind squint until verisimilitude is no longer an issue. (My favorite train wreck is Merci Docteur Rey, also starring Dianne Wiest.)  Darling Companion, also entertaining (the actors make sure of that), is another kind of disaster, the movie ruined by one single miscalculation. Mr Kasdan invested a great deal of skill and taste as well as money in Darling Companion, but he was mistaken about being able to make it fly.


I was right to finish my mention of tonight’s Carnegie Hall tickets, in the daily entry at Civil Pleasures, with a question mark  The weather’s grisly — penetrating and wet, worse, as far as I’m concerned, than snowfall at thirty degrees cooler — and I want to be sure not to miss any of this weekend’s events (more parties). My streak of concert cancellations this season has been unprecedented, to the extent that I’m wondering if I ought to renew any of my subscriptions. I’m even thinking about dropping Orpheus, which I’ll be missing on Saturday night because I’d rather go to a cocktail party. (Ms NOLA will take the tickets, and I know that she’ll have a good time, so I don’t feel any sense of waste. Tonight’s tickets, for a performance Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, are another matter, although I didn’t so much as buy them as take them along with good seats for Messiah at Christmas.) Increasingly, I don’t want to go out at night unless it’s to spend time with friends — and I don’t mean sitting still with friends.

The iPod playlists are undoubtedly to blame for my dismal attendance record. They have filled my brain with music that I never knew as well as I do now. Just this afternoon, I noticed that one little dance in Bach’s fourth French Suite takes for its theme a figure buried in the counterpoint of the preceding number. I realized that I knew that it was going to happen; I had heard the keyboard suites so many times in the past year that, even though I have to stop and think, which one is this?, I not only knew what was coming next but grasped that I was listening to a kind of prelude. In short, I am not hungry to hear music, and, because the playlists have made it possible for me to get to know multiple performances of many works very well — something that, as I’ve written elsewhere, was hard to achieve in the era of the LP, when every piece of music (or every record, at least) had to be physically chosen, thus putting a premium on “bests” and “favorites” — the music that I listen to at home is as varied as the music that I would hear in a concert hall. I wonder how much of what I’m saying makes sense to anyone interested in music, but not in classical music.

Gotham Diary:
25 April 2012

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

The second volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries has appeared, entitled As Consciousness Is Harnessed to the Flesh. What a ghastly title — I can’t believe that Sontag herself would have chosen it. “I’m irritated with images, often: they seem ‘crazy’ to me. Why should X by like Y?” Why speak of consciousness as harnessed when horses are harnessed precisely because they’re naturally independent (not to mention two of a kind). Reading Brian Dillon’s review in the Irish Times, I’m doubting that I’ll buy the book. I bought the first installment, Reborn, but almost immediately handed over to Ms NOLA.

It was embarrassing to see how insecure Sontag was about her gifts and her budding career, and Dillon writes that these worries did not dissipate even as she became the intellectual goddess of the Sixties. Her anxieties were excised from the published work that we got to see at the time. In public, Sontag spoke with a cool bravado that casually presumed that her readers were on the same page, if perhaps a sentence or a thought behind her. She was, in her photographs, so beautiful! Her beauty was the source of her authority. That’s so obvious now! When I do read the diaries — when they all come out, and, maybe if I’m lucky, get published in one volume — I’ll be interested to see how much she dared write even privately about the importance of her good looks. Certainly no ordinary-looking doofus would have been permitted to talk about all the unheard-of writers whom she served up like so many hot restaurant tips. (If you haven’t seen Annie Leibovitz’s utterly heartless photograph of Sontag’s corpse laid out for a wake, count yourself fortunate.)

I was in college when I read Against Interpretation. It convinced me that I would never measure up as an intellectual, possibly because the effort would be too great. Reading all the books and understanding them wouldn’t be the hard part. The hard part would be maintaining the stance (which you are free to think of as what it really is, a pose). Sontag could be a goddess because she was prepared to suppress her everyday humanity in a blaze of cerebral stylishness. The humanity is revealed in her diaries; she is perpetually announcing that she is on the verge of becoming a great writer — but she never, to her own satisfaction, quite gets there.

I also thought, reading “Notes on Camp,” that, if this was what the world was really like, it was arguably not worth saving.


Perhaps if I’d grown up ten years earlier, I would have seen “intellectual” for what it was, a fashion. The concept had been around for a century or so; it signified belief in the more or less Hegelian conviction that the universe was governed by metaphysical laws — scholasticism, in short — and that these laws would eventually but inevitable rid the world of what was not at the time called “yuppie scum.” And what could have been more scholastic than all the feuds on the Left? The Wars of the Cafés! After World War II, in this country, “intellectual” described a mildly paranoid view of the civil order as a vast conspiracy, or rather the conspiracy of a handful of secret agents operating over the vastness of the nation. One indispensable item in every intellectual’s kit was “contempt for the bourgeoisie.” Or so it seemed. In fact, there was always a tension between intellectuals who had been born and raised in bourgeois families and those from working-class backgrounds, with the latter substituting rudeness for clever condescension.

I am glad that no one sets out to be an intellectual anymore.


I hoped to revisit the subject of intellectuals this afternoon, but the hour that I’d have spent writing got chewed up by scheduling problems. I went to an earlier showing of Darling Companion (about which more tomorrow) and then trudged eastward to Alphabet City. I arrived before Will and his mother, but that was no inconvenience, just this once, for I was lugging a garden kneeler, one of those handy contraption that upends as a nice little bench. When they arrived, I was reading A Game of Hide and Seek in the late afternoon light. I say “just this once” because I won’t be carrying the bench in future; I had bought the one I was carrying to leave at Will’s. It makes picking up after him and sitting wherever he wants to play a great deal easier. Well, easy; it wasn’t.

Where did Will’s train table go, I asked Megan. Turns out Will played Godzilla with it, roaringly overturning the table top and sending Plan Toys tracks and Thomas the Tank Engines flying in all directions. The third time was the charm for his mother: the table was not set up again. I am sanguine about the savagery, for I believe that Will is the sort of child who will put this sort of behavior behind him fairly quickly. Been there done that, &c. With Kathleen and me, he was a quiet little fellow, engaged by Kipper when not hiding behind the sofa.

I must remember to wear an undershirt next time, no matter how warm it is. I know that he will sooner or later push his small wooden bus between the plackets of my dress shirt. I could fairly see the cogs turning while he played in my lap.

It was Megan and Ryan’s fourth anniversary! I’m so used to thinking of them as the world’s greatest parents that I lose sight of the romantic preliminaries.

Gotham Diary:
The Turn of the Innocents
24 April 2012

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

After an early dinner, last night — Kathleen was grinding away on a project that had kept her busy all weekend — I finished reading In a Summer Season and immediately wrote to Peter Cameron, to tell him that a scene toward the end of Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth novel had evoked for me an apparently unrelated scene in his new novel, Coral Glynn. This evocation was a visceral upset, not a cerebral matching up of references or similarities. There were none of those that I could see. Nor was this some vague sense of déja vu. It was, rather, as though Coral had been standing behind Edwina in her “smart, dead” drawing room and exchanging glances with Kate. I knew that, if I were going to write about this unprecedented experience at all, I had better do it right away, and that, while striving for concision, I ought to include every pertinent detail of what I called a moment of “synesthesia.” It wasn’t, technically. Synesthesia is the blending, or confusion, of two different senses. But I did have the most uncanny sense of re-reading Coral Glynn even as I was reading In a Summer Season for the first time. It didn’t occur to me later that some readers might find in this an artistic failure of some kind, a staleness perhaps. But there was nothing stale about it for me; I was thrilled. The act of reading was, for a moment, electric in an entirely new way.  

Then I tried to pick a movie to watch. Ideally, it would have been Brief Encounter, only comic and in color. That is, it would have been Elizabeth Taylor’s version of Noël Coward’s fabulous tear-jerker, and not a tear-jerker at all. Sadly, this movie does not exist, so I found myself torn between Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, which is an adaptation of a novel by Taylor, and The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s 1961 transposition of Henry James’s novella, The Turn of the Screw. What The Innocents has to do with Taylor I couldn’t begin to tell you, but I suppose you could say that it was a movie that Taylor might have seen. What interested me wasn’t so much Freddie Francis’s remarkable cinematography, dreamy yet stark at the same time; I’d noticed that before. Nor was it Deborah Kerr’s operatic but Gothic reprise of her King and I role, as a governess in crinolines. What struck me was the madness of the screenplay. The screenplay is attributed to William Archibald and Truman  Capote, with “additional scenes and dialogue” provided by John Mortimer. (All very top drawer!) It is not nearly as unsettled as the novella. James leaves the governess’s soundness of mind open to question. There is a distinct possibility that she is imagining things. Not in the movie, however. The adapters’ governess may be a little intense, a little too presumptuously the angel of virtue, but she is not out of her mind. She knows what’s best for the children, and it isn’t to protect them from the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel. It’s more therapeutic than that, more in tune with the times of 1961. The governess is convinced that the only thing that will release the children from the ghostly spell of her predessor and her predecessor’s lover will be the little ones’ open acknowledgment of their corruption. You may agree or disagree about the wisdom of this treatment, but you won’t be wondering if Ms Kerr’s character is seeing things that aren’t there. This shift makes the movie itself, and not the governess, seem to be hysterical and overwrought. And not, I think, very faithful to the spirit of James’s story, which I shall have to re-read to be certain.

I watched The Innocents first, then Mrs Palfrey. I have been telling everyone that Dan Ireland’s 2005 adaptation is very faithful to Taylor’s (penultimate) novel. That can only have been because I hadn’t seen the movie in a while. The things that the filmmaker’s do to lighten up Taylor’s novel all work to infantilize it. Take Ludo’s mother, for example. There is no scene in the book in which Mrs Palfrey gets to tell Ludo’s mother how nice her son is, and it’s unlikely that Ludo’s mother would be affected by the remark. And the other elderly guests at the Claremont! They’ve been severely denatured. Mrs Arbuthnot, for example, is hardly the commanding figure that Anna Massey presents. Riddled with arthritis, she moves slowly and painfully with the aid of several canes, and in the night she cannot bring herself to get out of bed and walk down the hall to the communal loo. With the result that she is quietly asked to leave the Claremont. No dramatic collapse on the dining-room floor for her! Mr Osborne and Mrs Post are both made to be slightly dotty but basically lovable codgers. They’re not. In the novel, they’re sere, stunted trees, casting a malignant shade. I don’t think that the film gains anything by these softenings.

Finally, there is Joan Plowright herself. Ms Plowright gives a star turn in the title role, and no mistake, but she is ultimately too feminine for the part. She may be an old lady now, but she was a beautiful slip of a girl once, as you’ve only to see The Entertainer to understand, and that soft slip of a girl is still walking around in Joan Plowright’s body. What would have been better, could they have had her, would have been the late Joan Sanderson, the grimly frugal Mrs Richards in the great Fawlty Towers episode about flying tarts and a view of the wildebeests.

All the same, both movies are great to watch, and I enjoyed them more than ever for enjoying them a little more critically.


My visitor, George Borden, is, I’ve decided, an in-house accountant for an admiralty law firm. This means that he’s a steady worker more interested in stability than in big bucks, but also that he works in a small field, with not many genuine confrères. Whether or not George will still be an accountant working for a a specialty law firm by the time I’m done with him couldn’t matter less. The preliminary decision has taught me a lot about him, or rather allowed me to know him better. George’s wife, Alice, works for a charitable foundation whose funder is interested in public housing. The next thing to know is the character of the neighbor. Ah: I see that she is a retired executive secretary. What shall we call her? More important: is she the catalyst, the person who opens an unexpected door for George? Or is it someone to whom she is connected, someone who will take George out of his apartment building? Each one of these details is like a crumb of bread that, holding them out in my hands, attracts further details.

George’s story is about getting older, but it is not a story about decline.

Gotham Diary:
23 April 2012

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

After the long weekend away from the computer, I was tempted, this morning, to stretch the “long weekend” concept a bit, and to fold in a paragraph or two at the end of the preceding entry. But here I am, remembering the cherry blossoms that have long since scattered in the wind and rain. Another annual moment of extraordinary loveliness has come and gone. It was difficult to enjoy this year, because the sense of a regular, ordered world that their serried April blooms have signified in the past was this year, and not for the first, undermined by the upheaval of subway station construction outside our door. From the very start, the project has worn for me a sinister military air, as if the intersection were a checkpoint within a divided city. Civilian life does flow, largely unimpeded, all about the concrete stancheons and the fenced-in backhoes and the curious multistorey structures, and amidst the men in hard hats and orange vests, more and more of whom seem to be carrying paperwork. But, no doubt because I am old, the work is not exciting but only stressful. I am always wondering if I will live to see the end of it, not because the official completion date is so far away (what’s five years?), but because it’s hard to believe that such an extensive rupture of urban fabric can ever be repaired.

The weather is thick and gloomy. I slept badly, troubled by irritating dreams crowded with banal anxieties. (Wondering whether I had packed enough underwear recurred throughout the series.) Then there was the question, “What does George Borden do?” George Borden is something of an incubus at the moment. Yesterday, he didn’t even have a name. This morning, he not only got that but a wife named Alice. George and Alice raised two children in one of the suburbs, but moved into the city when the younger one was killed in a high-school graduation-party drunk-driving accident (how innocent a victim, I haven’t decided). Alice had always wanted to move back into the city when her children were out of school, but it was only several years after the move that she realized that George never did, and wouldn’t have done if he hadn’t wanted to leave the scene of the tragedy, which in his mind extended to anywhere dependent on automobiles; and so Alice feels a bizarre guilt, having benefited so conveniently from her child’s death. All of this came to me this morning. What will come of it? Probably nothing. Especially if I can’t think what it is that George Burden does for a living, because that is who he is. I do know that he does something that anyone who didn’t do it would find “boring.” I know that there are jillions of odd jobs out there, served out in anonymous buildings on the west side of midtown, but I don’t know anything about them. I’m tempted to make something up.  


If I’d been more alert this morning, I should have said something about the Walmex scandal, so brilliantly exposed by the Times in yesterday’s paper. First, I shall be very surprised if any government will take any action that will severely punish (damage) Wal-Mart and its subsidiaries. As I read David Barstow’s long but unusually lucid article, I could hear the pens of conservative scribes been sharpened against what will doubtless be dismissed as the “elitist” smear of an outstanding American enterprise that has done its level best to compete in foreign markets whose ways we ought not to presume to understand. (Even if former Wal-Mart attorney Maritza Munich did go to the trouble of pointing out that bribery is illegal in Mexico [period!].

The second thing that I want to suggest is Wal-Mart “deserves” protection because it is one of the most vital elements in American political life: surely it has led the way in removing the sting from vast income inequalities by providing an abundant amount of halfway stylish stuff to Americans of limited means. There really isn’t anything that the wealthiest Americans can own, in the ordinary of course, that their poorer countrymen can’t afford in some cheaper version. What the wealthy do uniquely command today is a combination of personal service and personal access, but service is invisible, and ordinary people would be tongue-tied over dinner with stars. What we expect from service and access is pretty idiosyncratic, as any waiter can tell you. But everyone expects a big-screen TV to hook up to ESPN. And almost everyone can afford a big-screen TV — or can acquire one, for better or worse credit-wise. This is not a world in which only the rich see the game in color.

Weekend Note:
20-22 April 2012

Friday, April 20th, 2012


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

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


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

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

The tenderloin has just been delivered.


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Gotham Diary:
19 April 2012

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

The United States is populated, by and large — still — by the descendants of European men and women whose dissatisfaction with their lot impelled them to risk the dangerous crossing of a tempestuous ocean to an unknown land of dreams and opportunity. I am but a pale reflection, a degraded spinoff of these courageous forebears. I have known since my schooldays that their experiment in liberal democracy was a failure, but I have been too attached to everyday comforts to uproot myself and leave, not for a better place (there is none) but for an exile in which I should be able to say, I am not one of these people. New York City, it is true, provides the maximum protection from the American experience, but it remains, alas, an American city. I am ashamed not to have moved on.

Kathleen will read this (on her birthday, no less) and believe that it was all her fault. If she had told me about the notice, posted in the elevator at some point in the evening, long after I had gone downstairs to pick up the mail, about a water-tank cleaning that would close down the plumbing between midnight and six in the morning, then we’d have gone to bed under normal circumstances, and not with me consulting the Internet for advice about slitting my wrists. But of course it wasn’t her fault, even if I carried on as though it were. I no more expect Kathleen to keep me apprised of this building’s shambolic management’s caprices than I expect her to boil and egg for me in the morning. It’s not her fault at all; it’s mine. I’m the one who has tolerated and temporized. In the event, the water was running again within two hours; as I was sulking at the computer, I heard it gurgle up through the pipes. But that’s not what the big deal was. The big deal, which I contrive to conceal from myself day by day, is that my home is owned by dim and thoughtless people, arguably unfit for their responsibilities, and that my home is situated in a land where it’s expected that “market forces” will solve every problem eventually.

The other day, I went to a wake, and I looked at the strikingly well-preserved lady in her early nineties and said to myself, that’s the next thirty years, going from this to that. “This” is already pretty degenerate. My back is an column of unmoving bone, and I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to get around without knee surgery. I’m overweight, which makes everything worse, but I know why — I read it in a book. Specifically, a book by a French gentleman who proudly resettled in this county, named Clothaire Rapaille. In his book about marketing to “the reptilian brain,” he claims that obesity, in America, is the sign of “checking out.” It is a passive protest against the ways things are. Just as my continuing to live here, instead of figuring out a way to emigrate when I was still young, was passive.

I cannot leave now. I’m bound by ties of the deepest affection for my wife, my daughter, and my grandson. I owe it to them to take care of myself and to die of natural causes. And to stay put. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. By and large, they really do make me forget where I live, so much so that the occasional obtrusive reminder is horribly shocking.

Gotham Diary:
Buckingham & Lettuce
18 April 2012

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but perhaps you can chalk that up to vino. As I was drying the forks and spoons after dinner last night, I thought that it might be fun to write about our patterns, and the story of how they came into our lives. Yes — definitely the wine. Yet, even as I sat down in the seasonably cool morning and tasted the folly of my scheme, I stuck with the headline, because, hey, there is was. And there it will remain until and unless I think of something else.


When I was young — up to about three years ago — I dreamed of owning Audubon, a Tiffany silver pattern that seems designed for hands even larger than my own. The pieces have unusually broad handles that swell out to make room for little reliefs of Audubon’s birds. It is very 1880s, and very serious without being beholden to the baroque fantasies that prevail in the land of heavy silver. When I was young — 30 years ago — a teaspoon in the pattern cost about $200. I dreamed of buying a piece a month. And that is all I did. I never actually bought anything.

Dreams of Audubon wilted for many reasons. First, of course, one simply grew up. But no, it’s not that; if our lives had branched out toward an increase in entertaining, instead of toward less, the embers of my longing might not have been allowed to go cold. Third (in any case), we inherited Kathleen’s mother’s silver, which is Buckingham, a Gorham pattern that Kathleen always liked because she grew up with it, “not that it’s my favorite pattern ever.” So you might have thought that when we got married, she’d register for that.

[Historical note: In 1981, when Kathleen and I were married, brides still registered at nice shops for china, crystal, and silver, and grooms never appeared in wedding notices in the Times.]

But no, she thought it was too expensive, and that therefore we wouldn’t get any, so she chose instead the Towle pattern Queen Elizabeth, which is a bona fide knockoff, meaning that you have only to look at it to see that it’s the less-nice version of something else. It was Queen Elizabeth that fanned my ardor for Audubon. And something might have come of that if a lot of things had worked out differently, such as not buying a country house &c, but also I was calmed by the inheritance of my mother’s silver, in about 1987, after my father died. Also a Towle pattern, Silver Plumes was what I had grown up with, and I liked it not only for that reason but also because it wasn’t elaborate. But it also wasn’t very substantial — it was almost children’s silver. Also it had been degraded a bit by the primitive dishwasher detergents that, in the early postwar period, worked like sandblasters. Nevertheless: country house and all that. And when the country house chapter came to an end, the Internet chapter began. And now we finally have the Buckingham that Kathleen always wanted. End of story.

Not. A few months ago, while I was sipping a glass of wine at Ray Soleil’s, he said that he wanted to show me something. He opened his hall closet, which contains many more treasures than Ali Baba’s cave, and extracted what I think was a shopping bag. In the shopping bag were sealed plastic bags containing place settings of ravishing stainless steel. The handles were bent and folded in a way that simulated, at least to my eye, the way a plain piece of flatware would waver in outline if it were lying at the bottom of a limpid mountain brook. I had never seen anything quite so magical. Why the Pottery Barn, which introduced the pattern and sold it for a short time. Ray bought it then but never used it. I had to have it. Not Ray’s, of course. I had to go to Replacements, and buy a few pieces every month. $200 might buy three or even four pieces.

Gotham Diary:
17 April 2012

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

The last time I attended a funeral in New York City, it was held at the same church that I’m off to this morning, St Vincent Ferrer. Then it was the father; today it is the mother of Kathleen’s very old friend. I believe that I’ve been to one funeral in between. It would surprise me to learn that I’ve been to as many as ten funerals in my lifetime. I don’t believe that I’ve ever been to the funeral of a friend of my own, which is partly great good luck and partly proof that I have never had many close friends. At this point in time, I doubt that I would leave the metropolitan area (fly, that is) to attend any funeral at all. Nor, I think, would I go if the dead person’s connection to Kathleen were not a strong one. That’s to say that, left to myself, I would make it a point not to go to funerals.

Or would I? I must say that I’m keen to see who shows up this morning. Following Proust, Alan Hollinghurst and Edward St Aubyn are but two novelists who have recently made use of the funeral roll-call as a narrative device so irresistible that its a forcible reminder of our primate antecedents.

Today’s funeral is also going to be a Mass, which is a great bore. I can hardly hear liturgical formulas anymore without wanting to scream — scream! — for them to stop. This has nothing to do with atheism or agnosticism or any metaphysical considerations at all. It has to do with the conviction that the Roman Catholic Church long ago embalmed the teaching of Jesus in amber, as a way of shutting him up, and set the ornament in a jewelled monstrance of incredible vulgarity. In short, I feel the revulsion of one of the more austere Protestant divines, five hundred years ago. Something like that. Nothing is new under the sun.


Babysitting for Will last night was a companionate affair. He watched videos on the iPad for nearly two hours, every now and then coming over to where I was sitting for a hug (his idea) and a few crumbs from the muffin that he steadily dismantled, raisin by raisin, throughout the evening. I read feeds on the Kindle Fire. When Will had had enough of Kipper (adorable), Thomas, and Pingu (not so much), we went into his room and settled down for the night. He lay on his pillows with his bottle while I sat at the edge of the bed and read A Child’s Garden of Verses. I read the whole book, but when I was through, he was asleep.


The funeral was difficult. Something had set inside me since my last experience of Catholic liturgy, and the result was that there was no way in which I could pretend to be part of the community gathered together for the Mass. If I had been brought up in another faith, perhaps I might have sat respectfully through the service, but that was not the case, not the case at all. If the essence of Christianity is faith in personal redemption through Jesus Christ — to the extent that that’s another way of describing an afterlife in heaven — I am very settled in my unchristianity. To say more, or to put it more vehemently, seems pointlessly rude, and I mean no disrespect to those who draw comfort from Christian faith. But I can never share it — either the faith or the comfort. I never have, and I should never want to.

When I was a child, the idea that faith could be a comfort was pretty laughable: religion was really just a set of roadmaps for going to hell. Do this and you’re damned, do that and you’re damned, &c. Whatever the fine points of penitence might be, the Dominican nuns who saw to my introduction to catechism had one simple goal: to scare the hell out of us, especially the clever ones like me. Well, they scared me, all right; I’m terrified of stern, unmarried women. I should like to live in a world without them.

But I saw, this morning, as I have never seen it before, that faith is a comfort, even if it can’t be one for me. St Vincent’s almost trembled with a collective faith in eternal life in the presence of God. For the first time in my life — I’m not kidding! — I could imagine wanting to go to church. I don’t think that I had ever believed that that was possible, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. No, I hadn’t believed it. I had simply assumed that many other people were more disciplined and obedient than I. (I am not disposed to obedience.) I assumed that the only motivation for religious observance was Pascal’s wager. A desire for the religious life — I had never seen that before today. I had only seen the habit.

Gotham Diary:
16 April 2012

Monday, April 16th, 2012

At the end of one of this morning’s nightmares, I awoke from being chased through a littered stable yard by a riderless, untackled thoroughbred horse. I believe that chasing people down is something that horses do only in nightmares. The dream was probably brought on in part by the warm, humid weather, itself almost as alarming as a nightmare, considering the date. Also, I was malingering. I had stayed up late (reading Donna Leon), and I was sleeping in late. The urgency of the horse dream has passed, but its hopelessness persists: I feel old and powerless this morning, and likely only to feel moreso. Staying up late and being unable to get up bright and early the next morning have taken the place, as vices that lead straight to remorse, of drinking too much and hangovers. I suppose that there’s an improvement there somewhere, but I don’t much feel it this morning, which, of course, it barely is.

Why is Jean Zimmerman’s book about Edith Minturn and Newton Phelps Stokes so sad? Is is because she dies at the end, having been kept housebound by strokes for five years? We all die in the end. Is it because he lingered on alone, relatively impecunious, for seven further years, dying in 1944? Why would that be sad, exactly? Would it be because he missed his wife (which he presumably did), or would it be because the work that had preoccupied him for nearly twenty years, the massive Iconography of Manhattan Island, was achieved to rather quiet acclaim? Is it because his adopted daughter, Helen, doesn’t seem, in Zimmerman’s telling, to have “been there” for him and his wife during their declining years? Is this sadness to be imputed to the Phelps Stokeses themselves, or is it something that the author must share with the reader? When you’re made to feel sad by a story, you do want to know why.

I can put my hands on two reasons why Love, Fiercely left me feeling gloomy. First, there was the Stokeses’ profligacy. Like the last Medici bankers and their agents, the Stokeses got much better at spending money than at making it, and when papa Anson Phelps Stokes died, the upper crust was horrified to find out how small his estate was. What ought to have been twenty million amounted to a mere one. In the Crash, Newton Phelps Stokes’s financial investments were immediately devalued, but it was the slow leakage of value from his extensive real-estate holdings that made him a little bit poorer every year for the rest of his life. He had, it is true, spent a fortune on the Iconography, but it was always more the commitment in time that upset his wife.

And that’s the other reason: we know that Edith was upset about his obsession with the Iconography because he told his friends that she was, and Zimmerman takes this at face value. But we never actually hear it from Edith. We never hear anything from Edith. We read other people’s letters, but never hers. She is never quoted. Her hands-on philanthropy is attested to — she was a leader of the kindergarten movement, and she seems to have taught immigrant women how to sew, in a school set up at St George’s. She smiled for the camera every now and then, and of course she allowed herself to be painted and sculpted — it’s because of one painting, particularly, that we’re reading about her and her husband. But if Edith Minturn had a voice, Zimmerman has not captured it, and her muteness is like a wound. It is like The Portrait of a Lady all over again, with different details but the same suffocation. Only, this time, it really happened.  

Weekend Note:
The Royalty Rule
14-15 April 2012

Saturday, April 14th, 2012


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

The royalty rule is a great idea.

Gotham Diary:
Bad Old Days
13 April 2012

Friday, April 13th, 2012

The play that we saw last night, Regrets, by Matt Charman, is set in the bad old days of difficult divorce and political witch hunts: the scene is a cabin colony outside of Reno in 1954. It is also set in the bad old days of Arthur Miller and the attempt to breed a domestic species of tragedy, with the elements of drama retuned for vernacular inarticulateness.  We found it dreary and bleak, and we felt that the actors might have given better performances without Carolyn Cantor’s direction, since the show’s sluggish, heavy feel would be most likely attributable to that. The actors playing the three older men, Brian Hutchinson, Richard Topol, and Lucas Caleb Rooney, seemed as stuck in a flypaper of “notes” as their characters were in the maws of unwanted divorce proceedings. Mr Hutchinson’s character was an annoying puzzle: long since divorced, he was now living in his cabin by choice, writing essay questions for the Chicago Board of Examination and nursing Amfortas-like, unexplained wounds of war. He limped painfully, but it seemed that there must be something more to it than that. We never found out what, though. Mr Rooney played a blowhard ex-sarge, his good nature swamped by the violence unleashed in war, who now had trouble holding down jobs as a store detective. The pathos of this character would have been easier to feel if the acting hadn’t been so unvarnished. Mr Topol, playing the owner of a pet shop in Queens, desperately unhappy about having lost his wife’s love, was best able to chisel a distinctive, unpredictable performance from the material at hand. His tootling on the clarinet near the end brought a much-needed balm of human sweetness to the show, shortly before the climax.

Thank heaven for Adriane Lenox, though. Ms Lenox plays the landlady of the colony, a woman tough enough to impose strict rules on her residency-seeking guests but sensible enough to ease up in a crisis. The creator of the role of the mother in Terrence McNally’s Doubt, she is a truly formidable actress who, without much in the way of distinguished physical presence, can take over the stage with the arch of an eyebrow. I would consider it uncommon good luck to see her at least once every season. Alexis Bledel, who makes her stage debut, comes to us from The Gilmore Girls, so perhaps it’s no surprise that she handled herself very well on stage, in the part of the pretty waif who will do anything to get out of Pyramid Lake.

Looking back, I see Ansel Elgort as the star of the show. He is a high school student (at LaGuardia) who happens also to have danced with City Ballet; now he’s trying out drama, and I know that if anything comes of his career I won’t be shy about boasting that I saw his debut. He was compelling as a remorseful idealist, trying to limit the collateral damage caused by associations that could only be unwise in a moment of Orwellian invasiveness. I don’t think that he had one memorable line as such, but this was very much in character; Mr Elgort used every other physical resource to convey the misery of being a loving young man who’d suddenly become dangerous to talk to. Curt Bouril, playing the agent of understated state oppression, gave his character an off-center, Don-Draperish self-assurance that saved it from caricature.

As usual at MTC Stage I, there was no curtain, so my heart had plenty of time to sink before the show even began. Kathleen thought that the set was neat because it reminded her of camp. Exactly. But Rachel Hauck (sets), Ben Stanton (lights), and Ilona Somogyi (costumes) made the best of a hardscrabble situation. Mr Charman is to be commended, I suppose, for infusing stolid Miller drama with the chill of Beckett’s chasms, and for presenting the concoction in a tidy package; I had the sense throughout of a “well-made play.” Yes, but a well-made play about what?


Of all the beautiful things to say:

“I have known one or two women as beautiful,” he said of the bride, “one or two women as interesting, one or two women as spiritual, but for the combination of the three I have never known her equal.”

That’s William Rainsford, the reverend who married Edith Minturn and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes. There is certainly a good deal of this extraordinariness in Sargent’s portrait.

I lost nearly an hour today to a tangent that (in my mind) ran off from Jean Zimmerman’s lovely book, Love, Fiercely. It was about Shadowbrook, the “largest house in America” at the time that Anson Phelps Stokes, Newton’s father, built it in Stockbridge in the early 1890s. I had to see what was left of this monstrosity of stone and Tudor timber, so I began at Google Maps. Then I Googled “Shadowbrook Stockbridge” and came up with the most interesting document, a history of the house that culminated in its destruction by fire in 1956. By that time, it had been a Jesuit novitiate for decades, and the author was an alumnus, one Frank Shea. Shea turned out to be one of the radical Jesuits who embraced the causes of the Sixties and who indeed left the order and the priesthood to marry someone he’d met (at a Newman Club!), and he seems to have died of a heart attack brought on by a kerfuffle concerning his chancery at Antioch College in the mid-Seventies. Here’s the small-world pearl in the story. Having tired of Shadowbrook (or, better, having come to dislike it after losing his leg in a riding accident), Anson Phelps Stokes built another mansion at Noroton, Connecticut, the very building that, growing up, I knew of simply as “Noroton” — the Sacred Heart academy there.

Gotham Diary:
12 April 2012

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

There was a bit of glitch about loading photographs from the camera onto the All-in-One computer, and in the process of figuring out the problem I had to watch as the contents of my Canon S95’s memory card, which was new in December and from which I have deleted nothing, marched past as they poured into the new base. For the most part, I take two kinds of pictures, one of sidewalks scenes and the other of my grandson, and I usually take several of each at a time. I regarded the street scenes, as they whisked by, with a vague awareness of the shift in seasons, but the shots of Will, playing in his room or in Tompkins Square Park or even at our apartment, had an epic feel, as though they had been shot over many years, centuries perhaps, and not just weeks apart. I’ve taken hundreds of photographs of the neighborhood over the years, registering changes that are generally rather slight, but that day in February when it was so cold, and Will figured out that you wait until the last minute to sit down at the top of a slide — there won’t be another one of those. The juxtaposition was unsettling. The three months of everyday walking about partook of a different order of time from the three months of Will’s proceeding from two years of age to two years and a quarter, and I felt physically tightened and stretched by the camera’s indifferent shift between the timelines.

Something else that’s completely new to human experience is the touch screen. I say this not because I’m particularly wowed by my iPad, my Kindle Fire, or my HTC Inspire. I say it because I’m stunned every time I watch Will swipe his way to the episode of Kipper that he wants to see. There is no fiddling around; he knows exactly what he’s doing. Even though his complete sentences are rudimentary and his work with colored pens and pencils little more than scribbling, he handles the iPad pretty much the way I do. His little hands move with adult dispatch. Please don’t think that I’m bragging; I suspect that any reasonably bright kid who has been playing with an iPad from a tender age (3 months in Will’s case) will display the same facility. What’s surprising is the expertise. The touch screen clearly unleashes a skill set that we didn’t know about, because there was no way for a child to express it. Or perhaps it does no such thing. Perhaps what makes the touch screen unlike all the other switches in life is that it transparently overlays the objects to which it leads. You don’t move a mouse over here to bring up a screen over there. You touch the screen itself and there it is. It’s just like opening a drawer — something that Will is almost as good at doing. (Touch screens are so easy!)

A hundred years ago, there were no Kipper episodes to watch. Then we went through a long period where adults had to stage-manage such entertainments, by powering and loading devices, from phonographs and radios to DVD players. Now the little ones can do everything all by themselves. Will no longer says “More?” when a show comes to an end. He hops off his seat (assuming that his face is not already half an inch from the screen) and swipes away. And I shiver: he will never remember not having an iPad.


It’s late, and I’m not going to write about the play that we saw this evening, Matt Charman’s Regrets, at MTC; that can wait. I simply want to notice a charming book that I picked up yesterday, Love, Fiercely, Jean Zimmerman’s book about the subjects of one of John Singer Sargent’s more remarakable paintings, Mr and Mrs Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, which, unlike the painting in Erica Hirshler’s Sargent’s Daughters, hangs in the American Wing galleries at the Museum, where, I tell friends and visitors, I keep my good stuff. Edith Minturn Stokes is perhaps the first unmistakably American woman of style to appear in a painting, and it’s no accident that, in her Sargent portrait, she is dressed in wealthy America’s contribution to high fashion, “sportswear.” She had, earlier, posed for Daniel Chester French’s monumental (but impermanent) sculpture for the Chicago World’s Fair, The Republic , and job that she got, so to speak, on the strength of her apparently riveting performances in swank tableaux vivants. I didn’t know about any of that until I read it in Zimmerman’s book, and I’m prepared for further surprises. Edith and her husband were very much in love when they married, late, at the age of 28, and they were still in love when they lost all their money in the Crash, or something like that — I haven’t got that far. Mr Phelps Stokes was a committed, arguably obsessive antiquarian in the field of New York City history, a hobby horse that I believe also contributed to the couple’s financial reverses. Stay tuned for corrections. Jean Zimmerman writes very well, if a little too imaginatively for my taste (but what’s a biographer to do, confronted by respectable families that revered the ban on committing important things to writing), and I’m tickled by the sense that a new corner of Gotham is being opened up to me.

Gotham Diary:
11 April 2012

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Yesterday, I had two computers in the blue room, each with two monitors. Today, I still have two computers, but one of them has three screens. The other, older one, will be decomissioned as soon as possible. I was tired of looking at the back of the monitors on a writing table facing out into the room, and I was also tired of Vista, the operating system on the older computer.

It took five hours to move what we moved, and even then I forgot, somehow, about ZoomBrowser, the app for viewing Canon images. Something to look forward to, and, in the meantime, a new way to allow images to proliferate without organization.

Jason Mei did all the real work as usual, but I was on my feet most of the time, looking for things and thinking aloud and really too restless to sit down, so I was exhausted by dinnertime. It would have been nice to chat with Kathleen after dinner, but she wanted to get some work done and was happy to do it now that Jason had upgraded the WiFi drivers on her laptop. So I drifted into the blue room, where Jason (now remote) awed me with pictures of multi-screen arrays, such as this one with 24 screens and another, which I’m sure must be in Germany, with an assortment of ten, if you include the iPad. Then there were the cool graphic displays, both on three screens, of some exciting city (Shanghai? Seattle?) and a baroque town square, respectively. But the one that really caught my fancy, with five screens, was a beautiful array of DOS commands. I have to have something like that, displayed on my three screens, that combines computer operations with Twitteer feeds. Not a screen saver, but a screen show.  

Gotham Diary:
Dyson’s Batch Dump
10 April 2012

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Looking back, I see that George Dyson gives, at the opening of Turing’s Cathedral, his “history of the digital universe, a fair warning of where he’s headed.

At 10:38 PM on March 3, 1953, in a one-story brick building at the end of Olden Lane in Princeton, New Jersey, Italian Norwegian mathematical biologist Nils Aall Barricelli inoculated a 3-kilobyte digital universe with random numbers generated by drawing playing cards from a shuffled deck… “with the aim of verifying the possibility of an evolution similar to that of living organisms taking place in an aritificially created universe.

But only in retrospect. Only much later, in this book that feels so much longer than it is, do we see why a story that seems at times infatuated with the Central European mathematical wizards, largely from Budapest, who were driven to the United States by Hitler’s insanity, and equally infatuated by the place to which they were driven, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton — only near the end do we see why such a story begins with a relatively eccentric figure who spent little time at the IAS and who, were a movie to be made of Turing’s Cathedral, would have to be played by John Tuturro.

As for the title, it’s a shibboleth. Either you get it or you don’t. I expect that a reference to Darwin’s Cathedral, by David Sloan Wilson, but, as I haven’t read that book, I can’t make more sense of it than that. All that’s certain is Turing’s Cathedral is not about Alan Turing.


I discern at least three different books within the covers of this one. Three different kinds of books, books having little to do with one another even where nominal subject matter overlaps. The first book is a scrapbook of the early days of the IAS, which, you won’t be surprised to learn, George Dyson grew up, as his father, Freeman, had migrated to Princeton before he was born. We meet a lot of interesting characters and we hear a lot of interesting founding stories, all about the Institute. We meet Alice Rockafellow, who managed the cafeteria. Even when the anecdotes are engaging, the overall tone is that of a rather dreary institutional history, written to the anniversary of something. Individuals flash alive for a moment or two, but IAS itself is just a building — Fuld Hall.

Long before Dyson is done with this story, however, he picks up another one, and proceeds to tell it backwards. This is the story of John von Neumann and the bomb. The bomb was always the thermonuclear device that we call the “hydrogen bomb”; the “atomic bomb” that was dropped on Hiroshima (and then again on Nagasaki), was no more than the detonator of the intended bomb, which could not be designed without the aid of electronic computers. That’s why the story of computers is a postwar story: the blasts that took Japan out of the War suggested that von Neumann and others were on the right track, weapons-wise, and that the government ought to fund the development of the computer that they claimed to need in order to build a proper thermonuclear device. If this thumbnail is mistaken or misleading, it’s no thanks to Dyson, about whom I can only say that the grain of his sense of organization is very unlike my own.  

The third book is about life, self-replication, and who’s in charge, men or computers? Dyson is coy about the nonfictional nature of his ostensible science fiction. He even sets it forth in a bit of dialogue, over lunch with the 91 year-old Edward Teller, to whom he proposes the following:

My own personal theory is that extraterrestial life could be here already … and how would we necessarily know? If there is life in the universe, the form of life that will prove to be most successful at propogating itsself will be digital life; it will adopt a form that is independent of the local chemistry, and migrate from one place to another as in electromagnetic signal, as long as there’s a digital world — a civilization that has discovered the Universal Turing Machine — for it to colonize when it gets there. And thats why von Neumann and you other Martians got us to build all those computers, to create a home for this kind of life.

Teller gnomically urges Dyson to present this as science fiction. You can almost see the other wizards in the room turning their signet rings in a propitious direction. This is where Barricelli comes in. (Do we have something of a record here for the shortest Wikipedia entry?) I suspect that Dyson’s three books would cohere somewhat better on a second reading, but I’m firm about their remaining three different books.


I realize that we’ve been having an unseasonably warm spring — Willy, the barber, is worried about temperatures breaking a hundred during May — my junkets to the Shake Shack have not been kissed by atmospheric clemency. Last week, it was windy and freezing, ditto the week before. Today, the air was milder, but it rained. It rained just enough for me to tuck the NYRB inside my jacket whilst continuing stolidly with my lunch.


Will Thomas Kinkade’s untimely death catch serious writers about art unprepared? Anyone who has sympathetically toured a collection of Old Master paintings lately will understand instantly that Kinkade’s output was not “art.” But what is it, then? Is it not art because it’s not good enough (a matter of degree — in Kinkade’s enormously lucrative case, of calculated “errors” intended to snare the unsophisticated — or is it not art because it is something else, something that could exist only in an age of affluence, when materials could be wasted without consequence. (The unsophisticated buyers of art, two centuries ago, were few and far between, and highly unlikely to indulge their own native tastes. They’d buy what their nearest betters bought.) In Kinkade’s case, the materials are doubly wasted: the paint and so forth, and then the buyers’ money. No one will want Kinkades in ten or twenty years, because kitsch, like forgery, is stuck to its own time in a way that great painting is not. The paintings, far from rare as it is, will become curiosities in which only a small group of fans will be interested. (Unless, of course, the Idiocracy scenario plays out.)

I’m inclined to the latter view: kitsch as a personal accessory, like an expensive handbag. Hanging over the living room sofa, the painting of a country chapel, lights aglow in the early dusk, is a sign to those granted entry.  In this, I would venture to say (having forgotten everything that I ever knew about semiotics), it is unlike the expensive handbag, about which there will always hang a bit of mystery (why pay so much for a purse, and why that particular sack?). Status markers flirt with the danger of the emperor’s new clothes; sometimes, especially at the low end of the price range, the material value of a status object is nil. Signs are unambiguous (even if there’s more to them than first impression reveals). A Kinkade on the wall says: “We’re pious Americans who maintain family values. Because it would be rude to insist on this point by affixing a literal statement to the wall, we have chosen this painting to convey the message.” As something to look at, a Kinkade can only be a point of departure, a seeder of recollection and wishful thinking that carries the owner/viewer to an inner space.

And can’t precisely the same be said of the work of Damien Hirst, for all that he operates at the very opposite pole of the art market?

Weekend Note:
Easter &c
6 – 9 April 2012

Friday, April 6th, 2012


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Gotham Diary:
5 April 2012

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

My subject this morning is the somewhat rebarative one of feeds. “Feeds” is an ancient news term that signifies the contents of reports, formerly received by the newsroom in teletype form, from various news services, such as the Associated Press and Reuters. The clatter of the teletype machines was so completely the music of broadcast journalism that it was often used as a theme to introduce news programs. The machines printed the reports on fanfold paper, basically a very, very long strip of cheap foolscap pleated in 11-inch folds and packed in a corrugated box. In my early radio days, I found it was quaint and charming to type letters on fanfold paper; happily, most of this juvenilia will have crumbled to dust by now.

Do you remember how, back in the Eighties and Nineties, before personal computing achieved the look and feel that has stabilized over the past fifteen years, computer keyboards clattered intriguingly whenever a character (usually a detective or his proxy) had to sit down and use one? Sometimes the operating systems were equally fantastic. Compare Outland with Copycat — and remember that Outland was set in the future.

The thrill of the teletype racket was that something was happening, something with an industrial feel: news was being produced! Whether you were paying attention or not, reams of news poured forth from the shaky platens. Today’s personal computers are somewhat disappointing in this regard. Oh, they’re always doing plenty of things that you can’t see, and wouldn’t want to see; but to you, the user, they appear to be doing nothing but waiting for you to type in the next instruction, and this creates an unpleasant lonely feeling. We’re all so connected, as they say, but that’s not what it feels like.

Reading feeds on Google Reader would be much more pleasant if they added the chug of the old teletype machines as a personal option. By providing the cascade of incoming updates with an aural signal, the reader, thus improved, would probably reassure us on some hunter-gatherer level, instead of leaving us feeling woefully snuck-up-upon. There needs to be compensation for the fact that the news service that provides your reader with feeds is something that has to be cobbled together by you. You have to decide whether or not to “subscribe” to each and every blog that might or might not prove to be interesting over time. I subscribe to about 150 blogs (I guess). Every time one of the blogs to which I subscribe sprouts a new entry, a corresponding feed is noted (by a number in parenthesis) on the subscription list at the left side of the pane. When the total number of feeds that I haven’t looked at exceeds a thousand, the application stops counting, so that it can take quite a while, on Monday mornings, to bring the total below “1000+”. Quite a demoralizing while.

Yesterday, I spent several hours glancing through feeds. I tried very hard not to read any; the idea was to make up my mind about interesting stories on a quick, intuitive basis, leaving the reading and sifting and thinking for later. Later, meaning today, I will peruse the “starred items” on the iPad, spending several more hours but in a completely different mental atmosphere. In terms of Daniel Kahneman’s fast and slow thinking, I’m dividing the Type 1 jobs from the Type 2 jobs. Whether I’m any good at this remains to be seen.

It’s a pity that feeds aren’t more uniform. Many feeds completely reproduce the blog entry that the reader application is reporting. I believe that, if you set your reader to “subscribe” to this site, there won’t be any need to visit, because the reader will give you the entire content, complete with image. What it won’t give you is the formatting; as a rule, feeds are harder to read. That’s why I recommend subscribing to The Daily Blague, where the entries are rarely more than two sentences long and a link is provided to the full text here. Brief feeds are always best, precisely because they don’t invite you to linger. Flag or don’t flag, but keep moving.

I also wish that Google Reader were more adjustable. Or that there were a comparable app with a (reasonable) pricetag that would allow me to manage feeds more effectively. Take those “starred items,” for example. There’s no way to remove the stars in batches, resulting in the pile-up of dead information. (It’s inconceivable that archeologists of the future will ever tackle the the middens of our discarded choices.) I try to remove the star of every item that I “use” in putting the Beachcombing entry together, but if you ask me I oughtn’t to have to make the effort. Where’s all this automation that we hear so much about?

As to why I bother to read feeds, that’s an entirely different matter. I can’t possibly bear to think about the experience of reading feeds, which is what I’ve tried to do here, and the reason(s) for reading them at the same time — it’s too crushing.


Every once in a while, a great treat pops up in the feeds — something both delightful and unexpected. I was lucky enough to have such a treat yesterday. I was glancing over the feeds for Nigeness, a blog kept by an English gentleman of a certain age who works in London (in the City, presumably, but this is not discussed) and who lives in Surrey somewhere (or in a neighboring county). Nige is fond of long walks, and he’s a keen amateur lepidopterist — how nice for today’s butterflies it must be, to live in an age of digital capture. Yesterday’s treat was encountered on one of Nige’s less beaten paths, and involved the very British humor of Berlin-born Gerard Hoffnung. I knew all about the Hoffnung “music festivals,” but I didn’t know a thing about his fake radio interviews, when he would put on his “bufferish” act, impersonating a blitheringly self-important twit twice his actual age. I’ll let Nige himself tell you the rest; click through to YouTube from there. Prepare to weep.

Gotham Diary:
Avant la lettre
4 April 2012

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

Here is Elizabeth Taylor, in a novel published in 1947. (A lady novelist is taking the train to London, to see her publisher — also a woman.)

“A man,” she thought suddenly, “would consider this a business outing. But, then, a man would not have to cook the meals for the day overnight, nor consign his child to a friend, nor leave half-done the ironing, nor forget the grocery order as I now discover I have forgotten it. The artfulness of men,” she thought. “They implant in us, foster in us, instincts which it is to their advantage for us to have, and which, in the end, we feel shame at not possessing.” She opened her eyes and glared with scorn at a middle-aged man reading a newspaper.

“A man like that,” she thought, “a worthless creature, obviously; yet so long has his kind lorded it that I (who, if only I could have been ruthless and single-minded about my work as men are, could have been a good writer) feel slightly guilty at not being back at the kitchen sink.”

The extraordinary dispatch of this passage made me sit right up when I read it last night. I wonder how many male readers did so in 1947. Perhaps there was a bit of squirming, but shock would have been unlikely. Any men caught reading Elizabeth Taylor in those days would have been, presumably, at least mildly sympathetic to the charge of “lording it”; and meanwhile he would take full advantage of the fun that Taylor has at the expense of her character, who could have been a good writer. For it is also the case that this woman is a terrible home-maker. Her husband, indeed, is — but never mind about that.

No, the cause of feminism was not much advanced by this kind of writing. Outrage was required. Not the kind of outrage that, for the moment, convulses our glaring novelist on the train, but the kind of outrage that won’t stand for books with such titles as The Female Eunuch. I blush to think how brazenly I carried Germaine Greer’s book around with me, back in my early radio days, oblivious of the offense that it gave, simply as a mere unopened object. I blush, but not so deeply, at the recollection of being repulsed by the unshaven legs of the more advanced women. Outrage! That’s what it takes to get people thinking.


After a few hours of longreads, and then editorially deciding what to do with them, I felt that what I needed after all that hard work was a nice walk in the park. This was unusual: my typical response to a bout of hard work is prostration, not restlessness. Chalk it up to spring. The day wasn’t as warm and balmy as advertised; I almost came down with pneumonia at the Shake Shack, nibbling my frozen fries with childblained fingers. Later in the afternoon, when I took my walk, it was more pleasant, but still pretty blustery. I walked down to the park thinking what a waste of time it was, but enjoying myself helplessly anyway. I took a lot of pictures, mostly of utterly familiar views. I’ve been walking to Carl Schurz Park for over thirty years, and there was absolutely nothing new and different about the place yesterday — except, of course, for the sheer yesterday-ness, which was imperishably distinctive, even if it’s entirely beyond my powers to say why. Chalk &c.

On the way home, I stopped in at Fairway to buy one or two things for a shrimp risotto, which I made for dinner a few hours later. It had been a while since my last risotto, and I detected an edge of sawdust in the old rice. (Kathleen claimed not to notice it.) How nice it would be to ask at a counter, which I can remember doing as a very small child, to ask for small quantities of things. I would buy a half cup of arborio as needed. How grand it would be to live without bottles of herbs and spices, but instead to buy tiny packets of them whenever needed.

Gotham Diary:
3 April 2012

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Until I sat down at the computer just now, my head was brimming with interesting ideas, but they all wilted by the screen’s early light. I was going to mention that both George Dyson and Jonathan Haidt, authors of big , thick books that I’ve been reading, believe that human evolution has been occurring at a rate much, much faster than even such recent scientists as Stephen Jay Gould proposed. Dyson writes about “lateral gene transfer” as though it were a readily available lunch special. Haidt asserts that “religions and righteous minds had been coevolving, culturally and genetically, for tens of thousands of years before the Holocene era.” (Haidt also tips me off to the likely inspiration for Dyson’s title.) I’m more than inclined to agree; I’m convinced that human brains have undergone material changes since the Protestant Reformation — some human brains, anyway. I believe that the consciousness that we experience today was unknown before the Fifteenth Century.

So I’ve gone ahead and mentioned all of that, but in the process I’ve exhausted my ability to discuss it. I was about to say that the two books have little in common, but I suspect that that’s wrong; the books merely seem to differ sharply because The Righteous Mind is so painstakingly organized, while Turing’s Cathedral seems designed for random access. I have no idea why Dyson arranged his chapters in what seems to me to be reverse sequential order, but I understand that his penchant for telling stories is what makes him an incoherent historian, endlessly back-and-forthing among the years between the late Thirties and the middle Fifties. Whatever Alan Turing is doing in the title, the pre-eminent theme of the book is the life and thought of John von Neumann, the Hungarian-born charismatic polymath who by sheer force of personality organized the teams that created the hydrogen bomb. (The Manhattan Project, we learn, was really only a stage in the larger project.) The second theme — and it’s very distracting in a book involving so much advanced engineering and mathematics — is the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. This is where Dyson grew up; his father, Freeman, was a professor at the IAS. Too many of the stories that Dyson tells belong in a scrap-book. Once these themes recede, in the final quarter of the book, Turing’s Cathedral becomes more intellectually intriguing, and I’m not sure that you have to have read the earlier chapters to enjoy them.

It occurred to me that somebody really ought to write a book called Mathematics for Novelists. This book would explain, as lucidly as possible, the things that interest mathematicians, but, more than that, it would convey a sense of their attraction to such things. Why does anybody care about sets? I’ve never understood. What is so pressing about David Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem, and why does it matter that Kurt Gödel solved it? Writers like Dyson assume that the allure of these issues is self-evident, but it’s not.


A View of the Harbour, Elizabeth Taylor’s third novel, took a while to capture my undivided interest, but it did so round about a passage that I want to mention for an entirely different reason — that’s to say, not as indication of the novel’s excellence. And before I get to that, here’s something that I just read a moment ago: “Detail entrances a child and warms his imagination and at school there is a dearth of detail, so that the imagination loses its glow and often dies.” So true — about the dearth of detail at school. Schools abound in three or four kinds of things — desks, hallways, posters, irritating lighting fixtures — but are deserts otherwise.

As to the earlier passage, I’m just going to jump in.

He looked out at the harbour from her front window and found all the buildings arranged differently. From here — for the foreshore curved slightly — the Cazabons’ house stood forward, a square stone house built, said Bertram, about seventeen-forty, its slates tucking down under a parapet … and two front windows so as to save the tax (Lily had sometimes wondered why); this curiosity did not extend merely to those who now lived in the house but to the ones who had built it and all those who had gone in through its front door in so many different kinds of clothes from seventeen-forty onwards.

This view of life was novel to Lily, who had always thought of the past in two sections — what seemed to her to be living memory, and then the great stretch of darkness behind that curtain which had come down so finally, so sharply-dividing on January the first, nineteen-hundred. Now, people began to peek through this curtain at her, and she found herself wondering about them.

What we have here is nothing less than the dawn, presented with Taylor’s offhand but amazing concision, of historical consciousness, together with an image that illustrates in everyday terms what historical consciousness feels like: it is the sense of “all those who had gone in through its front door in so many different kinds of clothes.” I believe that Lily’s previously limited understanding of the past occludes most people’s view of the future as well: beyond the lives of grandchildren, the imagination falters. Of course, we can’t foresee what the clothes will look like a hundred years hence with anything like the accuracy of our grasp of what they looked like a hundred years ago, but it helps to have a sense of change.

Now I’ll say something about the novel itself: I’ve been imagining it in a staged adaptation. Almost everything takes place in or before the houses on the front of a seaside village, and it’s easy to imagine the deft lighting of scrims opening up now this interior and now that to show the various lives that Taylor has collected under her microscope. This isn’t to say that I’d like to see a staged version of A View of the Harbour (a view from the harbor, it would be), only that the synesthesia of novel-reading and theatre-going is a pleasure in itself.