Archive for May, 2012

Gotham Diary:
31 May 2012

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

At MoMA last week, I picked up a copy of The Complete Untitled Film Stills, because I’ve liked this work by Cindy Sherman ever since it was new, even though I found the women that Sherman impersonated to be unattractive and sullen, and I can’t say that I really like any individual photograph. What I do like is the fragmentary suggestion of complete movies that I am free to create and re-create as effortlessly as I please. In this, the Film Stills remind me of Edward Gorey’s The Awdrey-Gore Legacy (so thrilling, when it was new, because one had never seen Gorey do color before — just as Sherman’s stills were in a gloriously dated black-and-white). Gorey’s book is like a board game discovered in an attic, missing important pieces as well as a set of instructions. You make what you can of it.

I did not buy the catalogue accompanying the Sherman retrospective, though. I knew that I would never look at it. There are a couple of images that I would like to have as postcards, all three of them featuring New York City backgrounds (two at the Cloisters, one at the Bethesda Fountain). All three feature women who appear to be rich and powerful, however ravaged by time; their contempt is complacent, if not content. As such, they differ from the run of portraits and other images in the show, which display every kind of wretchedness. I would never look at Sherman’s clowns, or her sexually compromised girls, or her parodies of Old Master paintings. These pieces are almost too immediately not interesting; I must be afraid of them as well. If I were drawn to them, I would find out eventually what it is that I feared.  

That’s the point, I concluded. It’s a test: can you be happy with the fact that these pictures have been mounted on the walls of an important museum? Can you take an interest in their exhibition? It was a test that I failed, at least in several galleries that I could not wait to exit. At the same time, I protested (to myself) that Sherman wasn’t telling me a thing I didn’t know. About shock. About self-display. About the yearning to be found gloriously, miraculously, and, against all the evidence, beautiful — a yearning entwined with a venomous determination to deny its gratification. Cindy Sherman’s recent work appears to be about unsuccessful responses to the problem of ageing, but what I see, as I wrote the other day, is “the misery of a plain, somewhat doughy adolescent girl whose brains were of no interest to anybody. (Least of all to herself.)”

At the same time, Sherman lays out an interesting challenge: where’s the male equivalent of this show? Where is the man who would flay his complicated identity as Sherman has done? And is there a call for such a demonstration? If nothing else, Sherman’s pictures shout to tell us that women are obliged to be unpleasant in order to be heard; if  they are not unpleasant, they’re catnip, and whatever it is that they have to say is baffled and silenced. Is there a masculine correlative of this oppression? I believe that there is; the manly version of Sherman’s show that I conjecture would concern itself with failure: the failure to perform, the failure to fit in, the failure to lead, the failure to be memorable. It is not clear to me how self-portraiture would be involved, but it would be involved; there is no other way to file Sherman’s report on degrading shame. I suspect that it would also make use, as Sherman has done, of the image factory’s tropes of cinematic glamor and advertised allure.

In the New York Review of Books, Sanford Schwartz writes, “But then Sherman’s work is engaging no matter what we think of it as art.” There’s the muddle. What does thinking of something as art entail? The question has bedeviled me ever since Sherman and her cohort of conceptual artists set out to replace disegno with critique. Before that, Duchamp’s fountain and the other sports of Dada were impish tricks, subverting nothing but the art-admirer’s pouter-pigeon posture. Conceptual artists have produced objects that work like texts, that mean to tell us something, but without being readily legible. I think of them, these objects, as icons of a civilization that the artist, in any case, cannot bear to understand. When I look at the grotesquely large panels of Cindy Sherman, I see someone confronting an awful world in which genuine kindness does not exist. I am sorry that she has had to go there.

Hole in the Middle
May 2012

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

¶ The most memorable long piece that we read this month was Michael Sandel’s essay “How Markets Crowd Out Morals,” in the Boston Review. And the most compelling paragraph in the essay was certainly Sandel’s quizzical dismissal of Kenneth Arrow’s economics of love (the second of the two following).

It is easy to see how this economistic conception of virtue, if true, provides yet further grounds for extending markets into every sphere of life, including those traditionally governed by non-market values. If the supply of altruism, generosity, and civic virtue is fixed, like the supply of fossil fuels, then we should try to conserve it. The more we use, the less we have. On this assumption, relying more on markets and less on morals is a way of preserving a scarce resource.

But to those not steeped in economics, this way of thinking about the generous virtues is strange, even far-fetched. It ignores the possibility that our capacity for love and benevolence is not depleted with use but enlarged with practice. Think of a loving couple. If, over a lifetime, they asked little of one another, in hopes of hoarding their love, how well would they fare? Wouldn’t their love deepen rather than diminish the more they called upon it? Would they do better to treat one another in more calculating fashion, to conserve their love for the times they really needed it?

We came away from this not only refreshed but convinced that, one fine day, modern economists are going to take their place alongside the Scholastic “philosophers” of the late Middle Ages as spouters of nonsensical cant. (via The Browser; 5/29)

¶ J Luis Martín interviews Daron Acemoglu, co-author of Why Nations Fail, and a convincing discussion of the primacy of political institutions ensues. (Truman Factor; via The Browser; 5/2)

In Greece, for example, people don’t work hard and evade taxes not because of their inherent values or some ethnic disposition to such behavior, but because the incentives that have been created. Politicians created a system in which work was not rewarded, tax evasion was easy, almost encouraged, and clientelistic transfer payments made entrepreneurship and innovation less attractive.

¶ Every time we see a link to some TED presentation or other, we’re reminded of the fantasy, sprung when we were young, of learning difficult subjects (such as foreign languages) by “listening” to lectures on headsets — while asleep. We’ve watched a few of the videos and found them entertaining and “thought provoking,” although they’ve never inspired us to sit down and work out any of the thoughts provoked. That’s of course where the work, the real learning, would lie. Learning is hard work, and watching TED videos is easy. So: we were not horribly upset or disappointed by the Hanauer Affair, nor alarmed to read that the heart of TED is a Davos-level confab for moneyed brainiacs (who probably aren’t very good listeners anyway). (Good; Salon; 5/24) 

¶ John Scalzi explains the matter in plain terms: In the game of life, “straight white male” is the lowest difficulty setting. It’s a pity that so many of us are under the impression that they’re keeping the world turning. (via; 5/24) ¶ Don’t miss the always-amazing Maria Bustillo’s take on “l’affaire Scalzi,” as she calls it. (The Awl) ¶ Are you a guy who’s having trouble putting his finances in order? Studies show: you ought to get married. Then, perhaps, you’ll stop listening to “the swashbucklers and the cowboys,” according to Reformed (!) Broker Joshua Brown. (5/29)

¶ JRParis’s kiss-off to Nicolas Sarkozy reminds us of an abbreviated Declaration of Independence in which the sins nevertheless do pile up. (“Ses rodomontades.”) We’re glad to see his coattails, too. (5/9) ¶ As the United Kingdom celebrates the Queen’s 60th, we believe more than ever that the success is all hers, not that of “the monarchy” — which, a little bit of medieval history will teach you, always had to be reinvented by new incumbents. Nevertheless, it is nice to think that the Brits have figured out how to do the magic. (Globe and Mail; 5/29)

¶ Alison Bechdel’s new book, Are You My Mother, has just come out, and it’s certainly going to be one of the most talked-about things this month. Maud Newton interviews the author at Barnes and Noble Review. As graphic writers go, Bechdel, without stinting on the drawing, is decidedly at the writerly end of the range. She begins with blank frames and dialogue boxes; amazingly, her editor can make sense of this. (via Maud Newton; 5/3) ¶ Elif Batuman visits the (actual) Museum of Innocence, in Istanbul, writing a report that fills us to overflowing with envy and admiration. (LRB; 5/30)

The evening of the opening, Pamuk hosted a cocktail reception for 385 people on the terrace of a nearby restaurant. Waiters passed among the guests, distributing cloudy glasses of raki that looked exactly like the plastic replicas in the museum. I met Pamuk’s editor, who made my head explode by relating that, since he hadn’t ended up writing the novel in the form of a museum catalogue, Pamuk had recently decided to write the catalogue as a separate book. (The English translation, The Innocence of Objects, will be published later this year.) Borges could have written a four-page story about the madman who builds a museum while writing a novel about building the museum, but Pamuk wrote the novel, built the museum, and then wrote a book-length catalogue about it.

¶ Ellen Moody writes about Colm Tóibín, and the similarities between her own background and that of Eilis Lacey (Brooklyn). When Ellen notes how her feelings about Eilis changed at the end, it’s almost as thrilling as reading the novel. ¶ At The Bygone Bureau, Kevin Nguyen and Julie Disparte confer about Fifty Shades of Grey. Upshot? Kevin liked it better than he thought he would, but will not, unlike Julie, read the next two. (5/3) ¶ Jonah Lehrer’s Rumpus interview left us wondering what Lehrer thinks a book is for. On the one hand, he finds a book project to be a great excuse to explore all sorts of interesting things. On the other hand, a great many of those explorations would end up on the cutting-room floor, if it weren’t for miscellaneous publication in magazines. Next up: love. (5/4) ¶ Bezalel Stern interviews Damion Searls, the translator of Nescio’s Amsterdam Stories. (The Rumpus; 5/9)

One of the things I like about Nescio is that our sense of the Dutch character is so split: there are all these stereotypical boring, badly dressed businessmen and then the occasional flamboyant utter genius: Van Gogh, Rembrandt. How could Dutch culture produce both? I feel like Nescio is the missing link—he shows us both the bohemian visionaries and plodding bourgeoisie, each turning into the other, each from the other one’s point of view.

¶ Eventually, either Alan Hollinghurst or Andrew Motion will have to find a new literary executor (unless they die in a plane crash together, on the way to some awards ceremony — happily unlikely. With endearing cheek, Hollinghurst describes his first book, a collection of poems called Chats With Boys, “intensely rare.” (Guardian; via Arts Journal; 5/24) ¶ Speaking of Hollinghurst, our Man in Manila reminds us that literature does not grow on convenient bookshelves everywhere. ¶ Nige recommends casting a gimlet eye on the best-sellers on your shelves: they’ll probably be considered unreadable in a generation or two. Consider, as he did, Edward “Dark and Stormy Night” Bulwer-Lytton. Nige tried to, but was defeated by the writer’s “peerless unreadability.” (Nigeness) ¶ Two pieces on Joan Didion caught our eye: Maria Popova’s excerpts from “On Self-Respect,” a piece that, from Michelle Dean’s overview of early criticism of Didion, we learn was written in two days, to fill suddenly empty space in Vogue. (Brain Pickings; The Awl; 5/29)

¶ Alex Ross hails Andrew Ford for a valiant rebuttal to Steven Pinker’s claim that music is “auditory cheesecake.” But the column is important because it lays out the three simple steps to developing a musical intelligence. (Inside Story; via  The Rest Is Noise; 5/9) ¶ Leo Carey contemplates the voice of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the great German baritone who died on 18 May. There’s a lovely clip of DFD singing Schumann’s “Ich grolle nicht,” for all the world as though he was making it up as he went along. (New Yorker; 5/24)

¶ We heartily agree with Felix Salmon’s implication about Munch’s The Scream: it’s worth more money precisely because it’s not unique. Art in the Age of Branding.

And while the Scream is an extreme example of the phenomenon, it can be seen in every major modern and contemporary art auction. It explains pretty much all of Damien Hirst, for instance, not to mention Takashi Murakami, a man whose paintings go up in value proportionally with the number of Murakami Louis Vuitton handbags spotted in the wild.

All of which just softens you up for Felix’s amazing China kickler. (5/9)

¶ At AltScreen, Dan Callahan writes about Romy Schneider, whom he thinks has been forgotten. Not by us, for damn sure! How do we get our hands on all her French movies? (via The House Next Door; 5/3) ¶ At Café Muscato, a really good appreciation of Alice Faye. “Within her fach, as it were, there’s no one better, but there’s no denying it’s very narrow terrain.” ¶ Jim Emerson reminds us that the good critic’s bottom-line judgment is always the least interesting part of a review. (Scanners; 5/24)

¶ As only he can, Tom Scocca excoriates the food writers for lying about how long it takes to caramelize onions. Onions cannot be caramelized in ten minutes. One senses the anxieties of food editors: anything too difficult-sounding will put off readers (so it’s better to lie?) When we prepare onions for a quiche, they’re stirred over the lowest heat for upwards of two hours. (Slate; via The Awl; 5/4) ¶ If these were the bad old days, we’d probably say that Victoria Johnson has a great sense of direction foragirl. We, of course, never get lost — but then, we haven’t been to Venice yet. (The Awl; 5/24)

Have a Look: ¶ Maria Popova shares Alice and Martin Provensen, noting that Alice is still at it. (Brain Pickings; 5/2) ¶ Geoff Manaugh stretches topography a bit in search of the “Lost Lakes of the Empire State Building.” (BLDGBLOG) ¶ Steerforth picks up a Ladybird book from the Fifties and wishes that he’d been born in 1946. As only someone who wasn’t would. (The Age of Uncertainty) ¶ People born long after 1946 may never have appreciated the impact that American Gigolo had on men’s fashion. Chris Laverty fixes that. (Clothes on Film; 5/9) ¶ Well, not in our back pocket. (@ Joe.My.God) ¶ Popcorn Explained. (Brainiac; 5/24) ¶ Jane Hu on Felix Salmon on Gerhard Richter. (The Awl; 5/29)

Noted: ¶ Reformed Broker Brown joshes all that dirty old M&A spring-fever sex. (5/2) ¶ The Branson cube, smiling up from your drink. (Telegraph; via Kathleen!; 5/3) ¶ Broccoli it’s not:? “Roman Emperors, Up to AD 476 And Not Including Usurpers, In Order of How Hardcore Their Deaths Were.” (The Awl; 5/4) ¶ The Full English Breakfast via MetaFilter. (5/6) ¶ Jonathan Franzen gets a friendly, favorable review! (The Millions) ¶ Wayne Koestenbaum on parataxis. (Bookforum; via 3 Quarks Daily; 5/9) ¶ Douche Parking, @ (5/24) ¶ Edward Mendelson on “The Demonic Lionel Trilling“; we’d say more, but we haven’t digested it yet. (NYRB) ¶ You’ll be happy to know that Martin Amis lives in Cobble Hill because it’s “like living in the 1950s!” (Telegraph; via 3 Quarks Daily; 5/29)

Gotham Diary:
30 May 2012

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a movie about getting used to change. That is what we see the characters do — or not, as in the case of Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton), a soi-disant realist with a nasty habit of saddling every situation with the worst interpretation. The indignities of the other characters’ adjustments are barely hinted at; it is expected that the film’s most interested viewers will prefer to conjure these at some other time. As Ivy Compton-Burnett used to say, “I do not wish to be speaking of it.” We do not need to be watching it, either. All we need is that gentle reminder: you can get used to anything, so don’t be afraid of change. Worry instead about the alternative: imprisoning yourself in the block of familiarity.

That’s what Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) realizes that he has done. Growing up in Jaipur, he fell in love with Manoj, an Indian friend; the ensuing scandal disgraced the native’s family, but Graham escaped the brunt of it by going to university in England. At the beginning of the story, he is a High Court judge who can’t wait to retire; we’re not told that some bad news about a heart condition has resolved him to Do It Now. He has always intended to return to India to find his ruined former lover and perhaps do something to help him out, but he hasn’t gotten around to doing it. “Until now,” Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) whispers, when Graham tells her his tale. “Until now,” he agrees. The moment of reunion is a cinematic triumph, capturing muddle along with resolution in an unsimplified whole. Manoj’s life has not, it turns out, been at all wretched; it is Graham who, dithering in England, has done without.

It’s no surprise that Mr Wilkinson and Ms Dench (not to mention the superb Rajendra Gupta, as Manoj) bring their characters completely to life; what’s commendable about Best Exotic Marigold is the filmmaker’s skill at staying out of their way, and punctuating their “big” scenes (most of which are actually quiet) with razzle-dazzle pans of “chaotic” urban life. The teeming disorderliness is what the characters have to get used to, and we see that each of them has a different approach. Graham tries to track down Manoj. Evelyn gets a job, coaching young Indians working at a call center. Muriel Donnelly, a retired housekeeper whose hip replacement has been “outsourced,” takes a professional interest in the hotel’s housemaid, an untouchable. Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) and Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) go forth in search of fresh romantic conquests, refusing to affix “finis” to their sex lives. Jean Ainslie’s husband, Douglas (Bill Nighy) goes in for garden-variety sightseeing, while Jean herself, never having forgiven Douglas for investing their nest egg in their daughter’s Internet start-up, works up fresh belittlements to inflict upon him. She also humiliates herself royally by making a garish pass at Graham, who gives her a very cloudy look when, having heard him use the word with reference to himself, she tries to make a joke of it: “Is that ‘gay’ as in ‘happy’?”

The hotel itself is a comic device of Shakespearean vintage, like the Forest of Arden: it embodies the marriage plot that arrives at a happy ending only when the inmates — the handful of ageing Brits seeking comfortable retirement on the cheap — take action. The action that they take is varied; it includes dying. It commits them to change, even in Jean Ainslie’s case. More than that I cannot say. The lovers (Tena Desae and Dev Patel) are appealing stock characters, blocked by an intriguing stock dragon (Lillette Dubey), and the magic word turns out to be “love” after all. When the young people take the spotlight, it is never without a faint melancholy awareness that they, too, will one day confront the problem of being old. It’s the hotel that does it, the crumbling hotel that was old when the oldsters were born. Change is the bottom line.  


What’s this? Yesterday’s mail brought a new Sharper Image catalogue. I couldn’t believe that the operation was still going! And still selling the same sort of gadgets, only now what modicum of cool its wares exuded twenty years ago — nearly thirty years ago, really — has evaporated in the austere Applesphere of today, where the ideal device count always tends toward one, and not in the opposite direction that will make the Sharper Image’s investors happy. There is also a certain rather blowsy overlap with the always-whimsical offerings of Hammacher Schlemmer. Take, for example, the Golf Club Drink Dispenser on page 18. What looks like a driver turns out to have a little red button and a little white spout. “This ingenious and discreet ‘club’ is a great way to quench your thirst while on the course. Holds 48 oz…” Are we slipping? The idea of buying this gift as a gag for some golfer friends really did flash across my mind, but the afterburn was deep shame: what, short of murder, could be as immoral as paying for this piece of junk and having it shipped across several state lines to unsuspecting nice people? (Surely not the use that I suspect one of them might put it to — once.) Here’s where I started laughing out loud, though: on page 36. “Smart Organization While On the Move.” You could call it a geekolier: worn like a sash of nobility, from shoulder to hip, it is in fact a wallet with pockets for mobile phones, keys, and — ball point pens! Yes! The pocket protector of old on steroids! It’s not a bad idea, I have to admit, for urban hikes, but those pen clips! Has someone done a study showing that men are turned on by pen clips? That they feel thereby empowered, weaponized? I can’t begin to understand the wearing of writing equipment.

Then there was the Science Fiction Issue of The New Yorker, compleat with a Daniel Clowes cover entitled “Crashing the Gate.” Crashing the gate is one thing; the whole point of attending a party, invited or not, is to get someone to talk to you. I don’t see that happening, and if you’re wondering how antediluvian my judgment is, just turn to China Miéville’s “Forward Thinking,” on page 80. I surmise that this piece is meant to be funny. It had always struck me as odd that, as a child, I had no interest in reading at all, aside from the odd Hardy Boys mystery; the desire to read passionately and all the time began with and somewhat pre-empted puberty, and I never read books that weren’t meant for grown-ups (although it would be years before I understood them). Now I understand that I was simply keeping myself safe. “Of course,” writes Miéville, “the stories that got you all to hush, in kindergarten, were the ones that contained exactly the elements which you still seek out. In that class full of six-year-olds, everyone was into dinosaurs and/or magic and/or Saturday-morning monsters, just like you.” Not just like me; I was over there in the Nuisance Corner, incapable of being quiet through any kind of story.

Gotham Diary:
The Uxbridge Road
29 May 2012

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Of all the scenes that I recalled from my week abroad, I found myself for the most part stuck, last week, on memories of creeping along the Uxbridge Road through Ealing and Southall on the way out to Heathrow for the return flight. If the driver had told us that we’d be taking a five- or six-mile detour, and that it would take nearly a half hour to get from the North Circular Road to the Parkway, I’d have been much less disturbed than I was. Perhaps because I was disturbed — not because I was afraid that we’d miss our flight but because I hated being in a car on a congested suburban road, with stoplights every three feet and no end of buses. What I hated was the open-endedness of it: it promised to go on forever, just as my mother’s shopping expeditions used to do and there was nothing for her to do but park one or both of us in the back seat of the car. What made it unbearable, it seems, was the recurrence of something to which I was no longer at all accustomed — traffic in unfamiliar surroundings.

The people on sidewalk appeared to be of South Asian background, but otherwise the setting seemed to come straight out of an old English film. There were a few modern structures — St Bernard’s Hospital, sprawling on its verdant slope, could have been anywhere in America — but the shopping areas were what I remembered from before the days of malls and parking lots. We might have been in Westchester County somewhere, but the scale of everything was smaller, shorter, narrower — pinched, somehow. I imagined Celia Johnson in a trenchcoat, carrying a string bag of turnips and looking utterly worn down by cares. The colors were green and brick, but I saw them as shades of grey.

This was not the part of London that I wanted to be in or to know, but it is the part that stuck. It was foreign to a degree that Bloomsbury couldn’t be,  and yet it was unpleasant simply because it grabbed me like an impatient parent and reminded me of my childhood. Eventually, we came to the end and, spinning round a roundabout, pulled on to a proper motorway. It was a deliverance.  


This morning, I awoke at six, and meant to get up. Lowering dreams left me washed with depression, though, and I felt very safe where I was. I decided to think things over, but since there was nothing on my mind, I drifted into a series of dreams. In one of these, I was stretched out on a mattress in an apartment downtown that contained no other furniture, just the bed and my baggage. I didn’t want to be there, and I thought that I really must gather my stuff together and head uptown to where I really lived, but I was sleepy and drifted off. When I woke up, I was in my bed at home, both awake and still in the dream. It was deeply luxurious. Just like that, things had worked out perfectly. There were more dreams, most of them not so nice but none troubling. Then, for some reason, I was reminded of Maggie Smith and Rowan Atkinson in Keeping Mum, in which a murderous mother-in-law gives her daughter’s husband some useful pointers on public speaking. Something inside me giggled, and I could no longer stay in bed.

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

Friday, May 25th, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Gotham Diary:
The Scale of Democracy
24 May 2012

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

In yesterday’s Times, Amartya Sen wrote about the disconnect between European voters and the experts who disdain them. I wish that he had said more — a great deal more. The two points that he did make were important, certainly.

Europe cannot revive itself without addressing two areas of political legitimacy. First, Europe cannot hand itself over to the unilateral views — or good intentions — of experts without public reasoning and informed consent of its citizens. Given the transparent disdain for the public, it is no surprise that in election after election the public has shown its dissatisfaction by voting out incumbents.

Second, both democracy and the chance of creating good policy are undermined when ineffective and blatantly unjust policies are dictated by leaders. The obvious failure of the austerity mandates imposed so far has undermined not only public participation — a value in itself — but also the possibility of arriving at a sensible, and sensibly timed, solution.

What goes unstated here is the source of the pressures that motivate experts and inspire leaders to dictate unjust policies. Why have governments across Europe called for “austerity”? Because it is the only way to keep credit lines open. The alternative to spending less is having nothing to spend. That is because governments typically borrow against anticipated revenues. There is no use clucking about the imprudence of this. Large-scale government borrowing was until rather recently determined by and limited to meeting the expense of military exigencies. That is probably sound. Certainly an armed force that is dependent upon the commonwealth is preferable to the kind of self-supporting operation that has sprouted in China. Military expenses always tend toward the urgent and unforeseen; borrowing to pay for them is unavoidable. Paying off loans reasonably incurred to fight wars (defensive ones, anyway) is unlikely to be very unpopular with stable democratic electorates.

But what about other types of expenditure? What about schools and health care and (what we call) social security? What about infrastructure — everything from sewer pipes to air-traffic controllers? Has anyone been working on a systematic overview of how these are paid for? The items that I’ve mentioned are funded in very different ways, at least in the United States. They are also funded at different levels. In Europe, administration is more centralized and unified. But the foundations of public expenditure suggest a lack of overall design and a prevalence of ad hoc makeshift, with a hefty contribution from uncritically adopted traditions. And because of their public nature, economists interested in free markets ignore them. The American health-care apparatus is paid for by as shambolic a mix of charity and premium prices as can be imagined. It does not even attempt to make economic sense.   

Democracy works only when voters are informed. By “informed” I do not mean “free from ‘prejudice” or “not bigoted.” I mean: informed. A look round today’s Western democracies quickly shows how unlikely it is for even the brightest and best-educated voters to be informed about anything except at the most local levels. That’s a start. People tend to know what’s going on in their neighborhoods; they don’t have to be prodded to read footnoted reports about the immediate environment. (They’re likely to demand reports that are clear and easy to read.) As the scale of affairs passes beyond the local, however, it takes on an abstraction with respect to which it is difficult to engage on an everyday basis. Highly general matters affecting the nation as a whole (such as immigration law) are left to experts. The link between vote and policy is becomes tenuous, easily disavowed by experts and voters alike.

In his book about going back to school in middle age, David Denby reminds us that the Great Books have to sell themselves anew to every generation. Nobody reads Jane Austen because everyone’s grandmother read Jane Austen; and nobody reads Sir Walter Scott period. The same obligation falls upon public services of every kind. Western democracies have all been founded upon express repudiation of the idea that whatever has been done in the past must therefore continue to be done in the future. And yet the besetting sin of meritocracy is a hearty disinclination to explain complicated matters to the uninitiated. In a very real sense, meritocrats cannot be leaders.

Finally, what Mr Sen neglects to mention is that democracy is still very much in its infancy. Whatever its beginnings, its adumbrations in ancient republics, the truth is that full-franchise democracy is hardly anywhere even a century old, given that, a century ago, women were denied the vote as a matter of course. We don’t really know what we’re talking about when we talk about democracy.    



Gotham Diary:
23 May 2012

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

During last week’s trip, I squeezed in quite a lot of reading. I was running around as much as I could, seeing things — being places, mostly — but that left plenty of down time in which there was, for example, no housework to be done. I also got through a book on each flight. Going over, it was Paul Torday’s More Than You Can Say. Coming home, it was Denis Judd’s biography of George VI. In between, there was of course Nescio, which I wrote about at the time; Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, which I hadn’t read in over twenty years, and Joseph O’Neill’s The Breezes. The Breezes, an affable but sophisticated entertainment, read like the missing link that I hoped it would be, showing how the author of This Is the Life became the author of Netherland.


If I am wrong in saying that Paul Torday is unknown in American, then it is time to take my readerly radar in for major repairs. Having seen the movie on which his Salmon Fishing In the Yemen was adapted, I ordered it from Amazuke; but I also ordered another title, More Than You Can Say, despite knowing nothing about it. Despite knowing nothing about it, I grabbed it for my book bag as we were heading out the door. It turned out to be a fun read, but I could see why it hasn’t been brought out over here.

One of the satisfactions of British fiction is the much higher reach of genre: even novels of the best quality like to let you know, early on, what kind of story-time you’re in for, as well as what sort of other stories you’ll be reminded of. Torday is open, in his brief afterword, about the intention to honor the memory of John Buchan’s novels; what he doesn’t say is that he has also drawn on measures of Tom Sharpe and Ian Fleming. The resulting concoction is largely funny, but unafraid to be thoughtful and romantic by turns; and it spins a yarn of the finest wool. Aimed very much at male readers — our hero, Richard Gaunt, is an ex-army hunky hulk capable of great feats of prowess but also prone to witless blunders (Real Men are Dim) — the book exudes a faint but sly perfume, as of many effective tutorials at the knees of Harlequin Romance. We might also note that another of the author’s stated objectives was to make some noise about PTSD, at least as it has afflicted British veterans of the quagmire in Afghanistan; being British, Torday is able to deliver his doses of high-minded indignation in tiny shots of powerful implication, sparing us the pathological disquisitions that might have burdened a less talented writer.   

At the outset, Richard has lost just about everything — girl, money, family, career, self-esteem — but he remains sharp enough to win a pretty packet at a dodgy gambling club in Mayfair. One of the toshes whom he bests proposes a challenge that just might restore his losses, and our man is fool enough to bite: if Richard can walk to Oxford by lunchtime, his friend will double the winnings. Of course Richard can walk to Oxford by lunchtime. Or he could, if he were not ensnared in a nefarious terrorist plot along the way. (All terrorist plots are arguably nefarious, but this one sports a true Snidely Whiplash moustache.) By the end of the first chapter, Richard has been immured in the boot of a car, and the adventure is off an running. Whenever the author thinks that we need a little rest from the derring-do, Richard fills us in a little about how he came to lose his girl, his money, and so on. Torday works the formula for interleaving ongoing action with retrospective exposition as smoothly as if it had come to him in a dream.  The writing, while infused with Scout’s Honor, is self-effacing and expert. This is a great book for a transatlantic flight.


Denis Judd’s George VI was, I now see, an almost perfect complement to More Than You Can Say. It is also a crisply-written book about a shy and somewhat limited man whose determination to do his duty leads to heroic, if quiet, triumph. It’s been a long time since I dipped into Bagehot, but I found myself thinking that no one, not even the present Queen, so perfectly embodied the monarchical role that the famously unwritten British Consititution has left it to us to guess at. Judd is sympathetic to his subject but not indulgent, and he makes none of those claims, so tempting to writers about royals, of occult but powerful influence, tantamount to active political rule, that all sound minds must dismiss as daft fantasy. What happens, in the course of Judd’s portrait — which is also, implicitly, a portrait of Britain itself — is the development of an idea of monarchy that has nothing to do with power and everything to do with example. No one will deny that George VI, once he negotiated the hurdle of his stammer, set a fine example, but Judd tells us how he did it. “Although he lives his life in palaces,” Judd writes, “indulging aristocratic sporting tastes, he would have been perfectly content in a mock-Tudor semi-detached house with his family, his stamp collection and the radio.” But George did live in palaces, and he was a stickler for regalia and decorum, for proper uniforms and correct decorations, every inch the high priest of the cloudy creed of chthonic comfort professed by many Britons. That was his exceptional job, and he performed it exceptionally well. But as a man, he was just one of them.


Having just looked over the page at Portico in which I discussed Joseph O’Neill’s first novel, This Is the Life, several years ago, I see a few connections that didn’t occur to me as I read The Breezes, his second. There is the rebarbative romance, the love affair that seems all on one side — the man’s. (Indeed, even in the solid and richly accomplished Netherland, beside which the first two novels read like the work of a settled underachiever, the hero is engaged with a woman who has her doubts about his suitability for relationship purposes.) Then there is the domestic squalor that is scrubbed away at the end. In both novels, the big clean-up suggests not so much a resolve to create a new order as an acceptance of the old one: this is your world, mate, and you might as well keep it orderly. Dreams of being floated away to an easier life are abandoned.

What I didn’t need my write-up to recognize is that The Breezes also begins in Pooter-Carp territory. John Breeze begins by comparing his father to Wile E Coyote, in a tone suggesting that he, John himself, has his head more firmly screwed on. This is probably not the case, however, for, as we soon see, John’s life is going nowhere in a big hurry. I put it this way in 2008: “We have a narrator who at first seems ordinary and reliable but who presently betrays himself as not only unreliable but delusional.” If  this does not really describe John Breeze, it is not because John is more clear-sighted than James Jones (of This Is the Life), but rather because O’Neill has changed the nature of the game that John has to play. If John is not unreliable or delusional, that’s because the world that he lives in isn’t very reliable or realistic, either.

The Breezes, John and his sister, Rosie, and their Pa, live in Rockport, which I took to be Cork (only it’s much bigger). Mrs Breeze died of electrocution by lightning some fourteen years before the story begins (John Breeze is now 25, Rosie a bit older), but O’Neill steadfastly resists the temptation to make something of this catastrophe. I picked up a hint, which may have been my own invention, that the woman was struck dead in the middle of an attempt to flee her family, but it was the merest whisper, and it didn’t seem to matter much, not in the world of Rockport. The good people of Rockport suffer the same range of afflictions visited upon human beings everythere, but there is something about the city itself that conceals this. It is as if the local boosters had not known when to stop playing with the contrast and saturation settings while PhotoShopping their publicity. There is an absurdity about Rockport that can be sensed throughout the novel, only once surfacing explicitly, in the following passage.

I looked out over Rockport, a model congregation of six hundred thousand human beings. I remembered a history schoolbook illustration of what it had looked like in the olden days, a sea-threatened hamlet hulked over by rain and hills, with a boundary wall raised miserably against vehement casual forces — invaders, flood, wolves, sea gales. A large shanty stood at the centre of the village and a thread of smoke climbed through the hole in its roof. That was where hopeful sacrifices were made in appeasement of the gods, where the population slept together in a warming pack, their bodies each other’s radiators, dreaming of security. Now the boot was on the other foot, no Rockport bossed the elements. The earth, the waters, the fires and even the mobile air had been harnessed like a team of horses and made to run and run, towing the city like a quick chariot. Energy! The metropolis, hot and kinetic, growled and twitched and glittered with its mutations. The traffic moved constantly through streets teeming with dynamized citizens, themselves yoked and consentingly driven by the strong flow of money. Such unity, such output: I could smell them in the industrial aromas that drifted up to me from below. Yes, Rockport had the whip hand now, Rockport had the power. There were no more wolves. Any animals that were not milked or eaten or kept as pets were designated as wildlife and preseerved for our enjoyment. The dangerous heaths had been turned into football fields, the dunes splashed delicately with the greens of golf courses, the sea tamed by breakwaters and looted steadily for fish and gases. Invasions were history, and hunger was history. Subsistence was no longer the aim of the game now; by such fabulous cities, we had minimum standards of welfare and economic safety nets — now we had surplus, and from that hilltop it looked as though the dream of security had been realized and wondrously surpassed. It looked as though we were home and dry.

Funny on its face, this passage is hilariously but screechingly at odds with everything that the Breezes experience every day, from unremitting traffic jams to “decruitment” at work, sans safety net. (Like “dynamize,” “decruitment” is a fabulously awful coinage.) Written when the Celtic Tiger was rampant, but it is impossible to read without sensing that Joseph O’Neill knew how curled up in shame the poor beast would be today. How can John Breeze be delusional in a delusional world? We have moved from the Trollopean sanity of James Jones’s London to the absurdity of Kafka’s Prague or, better still, to the nowhere of Samuel Beckett’s stage.

Before reading The Breezes, I could not see how Joseph O’Neill grew from his first novel to his third. It seemed rather that Netherland was an outgrowth of The Blood-Dark Track, O’Neill’s deeply engrossing family history. Also background for Netherland, there is “The Ascent of Man,” in Granta 72 (Overreachers), the account of O’Neill’s pro-bono work, whilst a barrister in the Temple, on behalf of a Trinidadian forester, Ramnath Harrilal. But between the two works of fiction there was a lacuna. Without The Breezes, it seemed that O’Neill had scrapped his initial approach to fiction and developed an altogether new one; junking the mechanics of satire, he grounded Netherland in real-world complexities. I see now that this is not quite what happened. What the satire gave way to was not, initially, realism, but absurdity: the large absurdity of civilizations that take themselves too seriously (or at any rate drink their own Kool-Aid), and the smaller absurdity of trying to capture life in words. Unlike Kafka and Beckett, O’Neill has the knack — perhaps it’s nothing but the force of a lower center of gravity — of appearing to make sense of the senseless, and there is no modernist “difficulty” about The Breezes. But the novel is nonetheless saturated in meaninglessness. In Netherland, this sense of absurdity has been completely metabolized, and rendered no longer notable: “how things are” is “absurd,” and the thought that they could be otherwise has been abandoned. In The Breezes, absurdity is still remarkable, as readers will find in the tall tale of John Breeze’s career as an artist, about which I shall not say another word.

If I haven’t said much about the story that Joseph O’Neill tells in The Breezes, that’s because it is an entertainment, as I say, and easily spoiled by discussion. If you can get your hands on a copy, read it and we’ll talk.

Gotham Diary:
22 May 2012

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

The great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died the other day, at the age of 86, and all I could think of, with the loss of this man whose recordings I have loved since I began listening to serious music, was that he was only twenty-two years older than I am. He was always twenty-two years older than I, and, when I was young, the distance put him in another generation entirely. As a prisoner of war, he had entertained Allied troops, several years before I was born! “Several years” is a long time when you are 14. It is nothing at all when you are my age. If anything, the number “twenty-two” is a crazy kind of reminder — like a defective Christmas cracker that makes too loud a bang — that I actually was 14 at one time. Is that possible? It seems completely impossible, because I was an utterly disorganized mess when I was 14, and not at all the man that I began to be, about twenty years later. And yet, mess or not, I would play the “Libera Me” from Fischer-Dieskau’s first recording of the Fauré Requiem over and over, eventually daring to sing along. Dying, the baritone whisks me back to the beginnings of my life, as I always think of it — my childhood happened to another creature — when his beautiful voice was always there, always. He was in some quite genuine way a guardian.  

I heard him sing only once, back in the early Eighties, when he toured a Schumann program with his fourth wife, Julia Varady. I remember nothing of the music that he made that night. I was no connoisseur of Schumann, but, more than that, I was secretly let down (although very grown-up about it) to be in the same room with him. He was supposed to exist on an ethereal plane, as a voice in a studio in London or Berlin. My presumption was encouraged by the snapshots that were reproduced in the booklets that were boxed with the LPs, “candids” taken during the recording sessions. Singers dressed in dowdy street clothes stood in front of microphones, making strange faces, or they sat around tables of utilitarian design, laughing over coffee while listening to the takes. I think that these images were supposed to make the artists more conceivably approachable, but the effect for me was precisely the opposite: I learned to blot out everything incidental to the voice. I would never know Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as a man, and those little pictures saw to it that I wouldn’t want to. Everything but the polished recordings was stripped away.

It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I was surprised to hear music in the concert hall with the immediacy that it had always had for me on recordings, and another twenty years passed before I understood that the performance of music is essentially unrecordable. (See Jeremy Denk’s fascinating memoir of editing, as it were, a recording of Ives’s Concord Sonata for a demonstration of the point.) Not to worry: I knew that the music itself was easily captured, and for all time. I have it here now. “Dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem.” The voice of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau will never perish. Not, at any rate, until I do.


Because Kathleen planned to have dinner with old work friends this evening, I decided to throw myself, after lunch, into a major household chore: straightening the blue room closet in which I hang my clothes and store our luggage. To beguile the hours, I fed Season Five of Lewis into the DVD player. I knew the episodes well, it seemed; I had no trouble remembering who the killers were, right from the start, in each of the four episodes. That was hardly a drawback. Wondering whodunit would have interfered with the pleasure of watching the interesting detectives and the lovely pathologist stroll through the paradise that is Oxford. Somewhere in one of the mysteries, it hit me that, mere days ago, I myself was walking around a spring-greened Bloomsbury, and that Bloomsbury was close enough: for all intents and purposes, I’d been there. Courtesy of smells of soil and stone, a previously unsuspected dimension swung open. (I remembered noting how sweet the air was in the Euston Road — of all places — how foreign and yet, from earlier visits, familiar. In a snap, Oxford ceased to be an exotic Xanadu. It was not so very far away at all.

Didn’t I just wish. In any case, Season Six comes out in two weeks.

Gotham Diary:
Reading, Writing, and then Reading
21 May 2012

Monday, May 21st, 2012

At the London Review Bookshop the other day, Kathleen picked up a copy of No Name, the second of Wilkie Collins’s “sensation” novels of the 1860s. Like me, she had read and enjoyed The Woman in White and The Moonstone; and she was curious to see what else Collins could do. He did not disappoint. Right up until last night, just before dinner, Kathleen was not to be seen without No Name in her hands. Her brow arched over twinkling eyes, she turned every page as if remembering to take a breath, and I knew that she was engrossed in an adventure. Every time she tried to describe the book to me, it came out sounding rather like Harriet the Spy, and with barely buried glee Kathleen conceded that this might indeed be the case. She began begging me to read No Name even before she was halfway through, and, to thank her for my interesting week in Amsterdam and London, I promised that I would. Now that I’ve begun, I wish I were back in London for the duration, if only to help me clip through the novel’s 660 pages as briskly as Kathleen did.


I find myself meditating ever more deliberately on the gulf, as I see it, between what I’ll call multimedia informational experience and the much older interplay between reading and writing. Today’s thoughts were triggered by David Carr’s column in the Times about The Ativist, a site that I hadn’t visited before which is devoted to what investor Eric Schmidt of Google calls “the need we all have to tell stories in multimedia.” Let me be clear at the outset that I have no objection to multimediated expression — and also that I have less and less interest in exploring it. Let’s allow also for the possibility that my thoughts on the matter are determined largely by age(ing). My idea, in any case, is that the tradition of reading and writing, familiar since the inauguration of book printing in the Fifteenth Century, while it may continued to be practiced by relatively few people, is as vibrant as ever. It needs neither stimulus nor protection. If abandoned, of course, it would altogether cease, but my bet is that attentive minds will continue to find that wide but discriminating reading is the steadiest source of inspiration for good writing, which in turn contributes to further reading. I should not say that the ecology of reading and writing is a closed one; there are many other sources of inspiration, some arguably more vital than reading (raw experience comes to mind, of course; and the bond between written literature and the feature film will be a gloriously intriguing knot for a long time to come). But reading a great deal of good writing is the most reliable prompt to good writing. We may say that reading is a necessary but insufficient cause of good writing. And the importance of reading and writing, taken together, is plain: they alone provide the matrix for sorting out our most pressing concerns, from the gestation of human identity to death, and from love to despair.

I don’t mean to slight the engineers: our world would be a poorer place — it was a poorer place — without a command of weights and measures expressed in numerical terms. It is not inconceivable that we will one day be capable of saying everything that we have to say in digits. But that day, it seems very clear to me, lies a long way off; we’re going to have to know ourselves much better than we do now before we’ll be capable of such streamlined discourse.

For the time being, we have words, imprecise as they are, to signify our impressions. Matthew Arnold put it all much better in Culture and Anarchy, but his ideas might need restatement in the age of handheld devices. Reading, writing, and the consideration of life that they (and they alone) make possible require calm, quiet, and patience to a degree hardly favored by contemporary bustle; but then it is probably the case that the given contemporary bustle at any moment in our past has been unfavorable to reading and writing, and that the scintillations of immediately accessible multimedia are merely the latest in a long line of fads. What makes the new wrinkle different from all previous ones is the widespread misapprehension that multimediated expression is not so much a distraction from reading and writing as it is their replacement. That’s the bad idea that I want to label as such, conspicuously. I shouldn’t be surprised to find that we really do all need to tell stories in multimedia. But that will never have much to do with the transaction of reading and writing, a concourse of recorded words in which experience is transformed into understanding.


I had thought of taking the day off by spending it in bed, but I went to the movies instead. Because of the terrible wet weather that we’re having, I was more or less obliged to see Dark Shadows. (That British all-star thing about the hotel in India is showing up here, but Kathleen wants me to wait to see that with her.) The soap opera on which Dark Shadows is based was broadcast during my undergraduate days, when I watched little to no television; from what I could make out, it involved vampires camping it up on daytime TV. So I never saw so much as a minute of it. I’d have stayed away from Tim Burton’s adaptation as well, if it hadn’t been for Eva Green, whom I like very much. With her blindingly arctic smile, she makes a very good wicked witch. Everyone else in the cast, if any good at all, seems thrown away on the project, especially Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Michelle Pfeiffer appears, discomfitingly, to be acting out an allegory of ageing actresses. The vulgarity of the project, while not irritating, pervades and deadens every frame, like the bilious make-up. The Collins mansion is a ludicrous monstrosity that seems designed to amaze audiences who have never been anywhere, and does not begin to be slyly humorous. There is in fact nothing sly about Dark Shadows.

The most banal thing about Dark Shadows is, ironically, its lack of shadows. The lighting is almost religiously flat, falling on all surfaces equally. In at least one scene, Johnny Depp strikes a pose that begs for the sort of high-contrast composition that made actors such as John Barrymore seem tragic even when their roles were pathetic, and Eva Green (like Elizabeth Moss in Darling Companion) often brings the young Joan Crawford to mind, but without any of the nerve-snapping tension in which even MGM took pains to embed her. Where Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist recapitulates the artistry with which the old studios compensated for the lack of color, Tim Burton’s movie seems inspired, as if anything could be, by the ambivalent colors of the Seventies — no artistry at all. And Maine — I ask you! Has anyone been to Maine? The only scary movie with a Maine setting that seems more than halfway plausible is Dolores Claiborne, a film of resolutely prosaic settings whose one naturally dramatic scene involves heavenly bodies. Much as I love the East Coast, I do regret its complete lack of seaside clifferies.

I came home and watched The Tourist, which is no more significant than Dark Shadows but a lot more entertaining, and very sly. I wish that Angelina Jolie would play more spy movies as the lusciously cool Elise Clifton-Ward; she’s as over-the-top as can be, but she keeps her footing. I watched the final scenes carefully, noting the faint but vital stages of Johnny Depp’s facial cleanup as the big payoff approaches; lock by lock, his hair and beard grow more kempt and ruly. The Tourist is vulgar, too, but briskly: you have to pay attention to its excesses, or you’ll miss them. I wasn’t really paying attention; I was tidying the blue room, which, between Will’s visit yesterday and my unpacking, had grown unkempt if not quite unruly. Now the only mess in the house is atop the dining table, and it’s really only a matter of piled books. I’d much rather read them than sort them out. 

Weekend Note:
Longer Weekends
14 May 2012

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

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

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


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


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

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

Only, now it isn’t. They’re here.

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

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

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

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

18 May 2012

Friday, May 18th, 2012

The plan was to walk to the London Review Bookshop, have lunch, and walked back. We found the bookshop straightaway, although we nearly missed it at first. Outside the British Museum, I spotted a You Are Here map with a sigh of gratitude, for, having bluffed my way into the general vicinity of our destination, I now required finer details. It turned out, of course, that we had just passed Bury Place. The Bury Place entry was not good enough for me, however; I had to peer into the courtyard to find the side door, the one that figures in the film of Enduring Love. The fiction shelves are arrayed about that rear part of the shop, and within two minutes I had found two prizes: Alan Hollinghurst’s second novel, The Folding Star, which was what I’d had my heart set on finding; and a miracle, Joseph O’Neill’s second novel, The Breezes, which I’d all but given up on finding. All but given up on finding, that is, back when Netherland came out, four years ago.

Kathleen, on the other hand, demonstrated that it has been a long time since her last browse through a real bookshop. She’d still be there now, if I hadn’t pried her loose.

“Virginia Woolf lived here?” Kathleen queried in Tavistock Square. “But I thought that Bloomsbury was a slum.” It’s not hard to imagine where Kathleen got that idea. When Jessica Mitford moved to Rotherhithe with her husband, Esmond Romilly, her family thought that she was living in a slum, just as the Stephens girls’ relations must have thought of the orphans absconding eastward to Tavistock Square for lives both unmarried and unchaperoned. Kathleen was brought up to think the same sort of thing — which is more or less why she remains unfamiliar with the Upper West Side. On several occasions, she has stayed at fetching inns in the City, cosy hermit crabs in the husks of eighteenth-century buildings. And of course her parents lived in Belgravia during her father’s assignments to the British operation of his firm. But of London north of Oxford Street she knows only the Wallace Collection. Or did, until yesterday.

The You Are Here map in front of the British Museum was posted eccentrically, with west at the top and east at the bottom; it gave me quite a turn, I don’t mind telling you. Priding myself on my sense of orientation as I do, I was shocked and humiliated by the possibility that I had been walking along, ninety degrees off, for half an hour.

You’ll be wondering where my A-Z was. It would have been in my shoulder bag, of course, if it hadn’t been for Google Maps. Why pack a heavy book, I thought, when I can buy one when I’m there. I could rely on the Internet to give me an idea before setting out. Oh! Maybe you’ll be wondering where my phone was. I haven’t actually tried to use my phone. It has been turned off almost the entire time that we’ve been in Europe. I’m not sure that it works over here, but I’m not much tempted to find out one way or the other. I seem to have fallen into an uncanny valley in which small devices that do lots of amazing things are actually, essentially, and primarily tiresome.


The word “tiresome” fairly springs to my fingers, although not much else does. I’m tired. It’s tiring not to be at home. I feel as though we’ve been gone for months. Kathleen is not really feeling well (she has a sore throat, among other ailments), and although we went down to breakfast this morning I’m not sure that the rest of the day will bring her any further adventures. I myself should like to go to Chester Terrace, along Regent’s Park, where there’s an architectural folly that the American printmaker Joseph Pennell sketched a century or so ago; the print has long been one of our great treasures for more than twenty years. But how to get there? A taxi would be easiest, but I’m still trembling from the the cost of our ride in from Heathrow. The Tube is just beyond me, at least as a solitary traveler; with my immobile back downfixed head, I’m reluctant to try to find my way through Underground tunnels. (I knew my way around New York’s subways long before the ankylosing spondylitis set in.) As for walking, it’s not very far, not much farther, if farther, than Bury Place. But the Euston Road is no quaint promenade. And as if by perverse design, there are no quiet, adjacent parallels, either to the north or to the south.

In the event, we did not have lunch until we got back to the hotel. Nothing looked particularly inviting, and it was late (after three) to be looking for a meal. I was amazed to find that I could be out and about for so long without the need for a pit stop. I don’t count on the same good fortune two days’ running.


I didn’t count on it, but I had it anyway, a second successful outing. I went to Chester Terrace and took my photographs, caught a cab and asked to be taken to the British Museum, hard by Bury Place, paid another visit to the London Review Bookshop (to buy tote bags), and walked home through Brunswick Square. It was almost all very agreeable. There was a spell of disheartenment, when I wondered how far along the perimeter of Regent’s Park, in actual steps, I was going to have to go before coming upon the arches that interested me. But I found them sooner than I thought I would, and, after that, it was all a breeze.

Tomorrow, we fly back to New York, leaving in the late afternoon and arriving in the middle of the evening. There will be no posting here. If the weather isn’t terrible, I’d like us to go out for lunch — I spied lots of nice places today, simply by taking a turn at the Russell Hotel, to see if Alan Hollinghurst’s description of the back of the “Queensberry Hotel,” in The Swimming Pool Library, was a fit (it was, a perfect fit). There will be packing. And then there will come the moment when I have to pay for another 24 hours of Internet connection. At that point, the computer will have been shut down and stowed. Granted a safe voyage home, I’ll be back on Monday.

Transit, cont’d
17 May 2012

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

A room with a view it ain’t. If we were one floor higher, we would clear the western wall of the St Pancras Station shed wall — for a fine view of the shed roof, I don’t doubt. Why stay at home, alone in your room?

Until last night, I was a fairly good traveler, but a chain of confidence-draining events steadily reduced me to blubbering helplessness. I’ll skip straight to the last one, which was, in all my years of travel, a first: it took half an hour to get our bags up into the room, and two phone calls were required, including a request to identify them. As we had checked in at 11:10, and Reception was not exactly humming, this lapse was much worse than perplexing. Eventually the young night porter showed up at the door, and we were free to go downstairs for a glass of wine.

Knowing what I know of London topography (I’m cutting back to the penultimate nightmare), I expected a smooth trip along the M4 right onto the Marylebone/Euston Road: voilà! What I did not expect was a meter that climbed and climbed and climbed, soaring straight to a figure equalling the cash in pounds that we were carrying. I also did not expect a detour in the dark, and, knowing what I know of London topography, but no more, I was immediately suspicious of the genial driver — who indeed presently returned us to Westway. I felt foolish for not having taken a train, tired though I was; it’s certainly what I would have done if I’d been alone, somehow. But Kathleen would not have taken a train in any but emergency circumstances, so that cleared my conscience. But I still felt foolish for not having looked into typical taxi fares from Heathrow. This simply wasn’t the time to count on Kathleen to do so.

I’ll save for later any attempt at descriptions of this amazing old place (built as the Midland Grand Hotel, and opened for business c 1873). I’ve seen only two of the sparkling, refreshed halls. The part of the hotel in which we’re lodged is an annexe constructed at some later date, 30s or 40s I should say, although it’s conceivable that it’s altogetheer new. (It’s the deep but narrow lifts that suggests earlier times — to me.)

It’s odd to be doubly in London. I’m so deeply involved with The Swimming Pool Library that it’s shocking to look up and realize that I’m sitting in the city in which it is set. I am slowly learning that to re-read a novel while traveling is to open up its full store of wisdom, however great or small that might be. There are bits here and there in the novel about public-school hazing, and they led, de fil en anguille, to a “realization” (which can’t be altogether as novel as that word suggests, although it certainly feels so) that my father had no interest in teaching me how the world worked. This disinclination did not reflect dislike, I don’t think, but there was a sense in which only “naturals” interested him; he was very helpful to young men who displayed aptitudes for his lines of life (work, golf, and so on). He would have been more personally helpful to me (he was always instrumentally helpful, certainly) had I shown some inclination to figure things out for myself. But that’s just what I wouldn’t and won’t do, if exposing myself as a rube be a risk. I won’t, in short, be hazed. I believe that I would have had to kill any clot of amiable young men who put me through some mild torture in order to make me one of them.

I never did board a tram in Amsterdam. If I’d stayed another day, I think that I’d have made an outing of doing so, and just climbed on board with a pocket full of euros, relying on the kindness of strangers. Where we were staying, it was not easy to connect to Line 2, as in Nescio’s “alles echt lijn 2, Museumkwartier.” That would be me. But I learned that the 24 will take you to the Muntplein, which is close enough (to the Spui, of course — the center of Amsterdam for me).  

Anyway, I obliged myself to get out of bed in the gloom this morning, even though Kathleen sighed “room service” as she turned over and cuddled deeper into the bedding. I had heard the clerk mention that “breakfast was included,” and this gave a finish of virtue to a stronger desire to be up and about and out of the room. A fine continental breakfast, offering ham and cheese and just about everything except eggs, was laid along the bar in the Booking Hall, where we sat last night with our glasses of wine and talked about Gothic Revivial.

Oh! I did learn one thing in Amsterdam that I had hoped to establish: it’s Nieuw, not Nieuwe, Amsterdam. Where I live, I mean. I don’t know how the server at the hotel restaurant knew this, but she was pretty certain. She was quite wistful about the idea of the city’s still being in Dutch hands. Stand in line, sweetheart! Ik woon in Nieuw Amsterdam.


It’s not immediately apparent that Nescio and Alan Hollinghurst share anything in the way of subject matter, but from the distance of my viewpoint they do seem to have something in common, an ostensible self-disgust that in reality masks a tragic disappointment with the fit, or lack of it, between erotic life and civil conventions. It is not, to use Nicholson Baker’s great phrase, part of my carnal circuitry. In Dichtertje (Little Poet), the title character reflects on the “knowing eyes” of modern young ladies (c 1914).

Because he knew perfectly well that they didn’t know a thing, that they burst out in stupid giggles whenever he doffed his hat to them, or just stared at him, stinking of bourgeois-young-lady conceitedness. And still he couldn’t leave them alone. Then he had to flee somewhere where there were no women, and he raged against God and the devil too, and he said that he’d end up as a lunatic at this rate and sit slobbering for years with his mouth hanging open wearing a leather bib without even realizing it. But the next day he would look again, and think: “Mon âme prend son élan vers l’infini.

In the passage that I want to quote from The Swimming Pool Library, the erotico-bourgeois plexus might seem more obscure, but I’ll venture it anyway. The young Charles Nantwich has arrived in Port Said, in 1923, and is being kitted out for darker Africa.

I came to a sort of dead end, a tall, stuffy place like an airing cupboard, a store-room perhaps, with a young boy barefoot, climbing up & down the shelves, checking stock, a pressure-lamp in his raised hand, his black face concentrating, dazzling in the plane of light that he swung about him. I stayed & watched, mesmerised, feeling that nothing else mattered. Down he clambered, his supple child’s body comically bursting out of his khaki cotton uniform. When he saw me he smiled. I smiled back — though I was at the very edge of the field of light, & perhaps he cd not really see me. He kept on smiling — an immense, gentle, jolly smile — not yet a vendor’s smile, nothing calculating in it. He was a pure Negro, from far south evidently, like the people we we are going to, quite different from the crossbred scamps who haunt the quays. I turned & went back, & as I did so he called out, ‘Welcome Port Said, m’sieur’ — in a heartbreaking voice, its boy’s clarity just cracking into manhood.
I was inordinately, unaccountly moved by this — except that I knew it for what it was, a profound call of my nature, answered first at school by Webster, muffled, followed obscurely but inexorably since. Was it merely lust? Was it only baffled tdesire? I knew again, as I had known when a child myself, confronting a man for the first time, that paradox of admiration, or loss of self, of dedication … call it what you like.

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I used to wonder if there was something wrong with me, because I had never admired anyone, ever. The impulse to admire took long to develop in me, but I certainly never felt it as a child. I thought that some people were very lucky; I knew, in my scapegrace way, that I’d been very lucky. There were certainly many times when I’d have been happy to trade my good fortune for someone else’s. But admiration? When I read the Hollinghurst passage, I wondered for a moment if Nantwich were describing an emotion that only fledgling aristocrats feel. But only for a moment.

I remember long, long ago complaining about the pride that John Fowles’s characters seem to take in their disaffection from everyday life. My good manners are hardly invariable, but I’ve always thought that it was an act of rudeness in itself to disdain them, as if one were somehow too intelligent or sensitive or whatnot to observe them, or at least to try. It struck me, twenty-odd years ago, when The Swimming Pool Library was new and I read it the first time, that Will Beckwith, Hollinghurst’s hero, was uncivil in just this way (beneath the gloss of fine manners indeed), and I disliked him for it. Now I’m not so bothered. I suppose that that’s a sign that I’ve stopped growing up, stopped looking to other people to figure out to live — and fuming when the example set by the more attractive ones among them suggests that I’m heading in the wrong direction. With old age comes a certain calm.

As long as you don’t have to go through Heathrow.

16 May 2012

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

The Rijksmuseum was on my list of things to see in Amsterdam, but I’m afraid that I’m going to miss it. We got going this morning rather too late for an outing of that kind, and, even if time were not an issue, my legs wouldn’t carry me through. As it was, I had just enough élan vital to walk up to the café in the Gerard Douplein (De Pfaardje) that Kathleen and I lunched at on Monday — not quite to the Singelgraacht, in other words — and my quads gave me a fair amount of pain on the stroll back. I was very glad to get back to the hotel.


At Scheltema yesterday, I cast about for something to read — something to re-read, really. I packed as little in the way of fiction as I could: the Amsterdam Stories of Nescio, which were such a pleasure to read; Paul Torday’s More Than You Can Say, a brisk homage to John Buchan; and Coral Glynn, just in case: I mean to re-read James Cameron’s new book at some point. I knew that I’d be visiting Amsterdam’s excellent bookshops, not to mention Hatchard’s, in London, and that there was no need to try to anticipate my mood while on the road — always difficult and usually vain. As it happened, yesterday found me in a mood for Henry James. Ideally, I’d have bought The Princess Casamassima, which I’m in the middle of re-reading at home, and then left the book behind me in London, but it wasn’t on offer. (Only two James titles were, The Portrait of a Lady, which feels too familiar at the moment, for some reason; and What Maisie Knew, which I am keen to re-read, but not while traveling, because the prose is perhaps James’s most demanding.) Similarly, I’d have picked up Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, but I wasn’t in the mood for The House of Mirth, much less Ethan Frome. I considered trying Jennifer Egan in Dutch, but that hasn’t happened yet; and when I looked at the lineup of Ian McEwans, I was poked by the reminder of Bootekleid (Atonement), which has sat undisturbed on my bookshelf for ten years. In the end, I settled on The Swimming Pool Library (in English), by Alan Hollinghurst.

I disliked The Swimming Pool Library when it came out. I found the “gay culture” aspect of the book irritating. Not the sex or the romance of the longing or the bad behavior — not any of that, but the queeny backchat of the cruisers in the club locker room and the fumbling around in the “cottages.” It doesn’t bother me so much now, because it’s vaguely historical; there is no longer any need, in the interesting parts of the world, for gay ghettos and their ways. Homosexuality may still be a vice in some eyes, but it is no secret, and the furtive appropriation of female pronouns, possibly the most perverted practice ever resorted to, has largely ceased. (I continue to find the word “darling” grating, but it really doesn’t matter who’s saying it; it’s the word’s breezy insincerity that I can’t stand.) This time, in any case, I’m enjoying the novel for the beautifully-written masterpiece that it is, and shouldering its sadness without grudging the occasional rough edge.

Nantwich proved to be a voracious eater with poor table manners. Half the time he ate with his mouth open, affording me a generous view of masticated pork and apple sauce, which he smeared around his wine glass when he drank without wiping his lips. I attended to my trout with a kind of surgical distaste. Its slightly open barbed mouth and its tiny round eye, which had half erupted while grilling, like the core of a pustule, were unusually recriminatory. I sliced the head off and put it on my side-plate and then proceeded to remove the pale flesh from the bones with the flat of my knife. It was quite flavourless, except that, where its innards had been imperfectly removed, silvery traces of roe gave it an unpleasant bitterness.

Aside from the apt comparison of the popped eye to a blemish, there’s not a metaphor in sight.  


Last night, I was graciously permitted to join Kathleen on a canal-boat excursion that filled, I think, four or five floating cocktail lounges. (The convention that brought Kathleen to Amsterdam gets bigger every year.) We were picked up and dropped at the hotel’s landing, on the Amstelkanaal, and a very nice little tour we had. Aside from a strange pause in the Kloveniersburgwal, it was smooth sailing in several directions, from the canals around the Artis/Zoo to the Herengracht — how grand the grand houses seem from water level! — the Leidsegracht, a bit of the Singelgracht, and home via a radial canal whose name I can’t determine. (It is bordered, not particularly charmingly, by the Hobbemakade and the Ruysdaelkade.) We had several pleasant chats, one of them with a young American from London who must have been a boy when the first Exchange Traded Fund, midwifed by Kathleen, came onto the market. Kathleen was sure that we’d never been able to get a table at the “affordable” restaurant in the lobby, what with hundreds of men debouching all at once, but my doubts proved correct: for it’s not the sort of place that average sensual financial services provider wants to spend money on unless there’s a lady involved. (And I was the only spouse.) When, for the second time, I said “Tot ziens!” to our server, I really meant it, although I have no idea of ever coming back.

Amsterdam Without Love
15 May 2012

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Has anyone else out there ever worked on the Milton Bradley jigsaw puzzle that featured this view? That’s the Munttor (Mint Tower) in the center. Of course the puzzle provided no details about the location beyond the obvious, “Amsterdam Canal” or somesuch. I still remember the delicious surprise of turning a corner, ten years ago, and realizing that this must be the place. I was standing at the base of the Munttor at the time. If you work on a jigsaw puzzle as visually complicated as this one, the ornateness of the Hotel de l’Europe (on the right) and the angle of the tour boats (on the left) burn memories in the same part of the brain, so that I could see in a flash that if I stood on that bridge over there (the one from which the picture is taken), the puzzle scene would stand before me. As indeed it did.

I miss doing jigsaw puzzles. But who has the time, or the room? The time can’t be helped, but there’s a trick that really works when you’re doing the puzzle on a table that has to be cleared from time to time. If you lay out the pieces on a large piece of felt, you can roll the whole thing up without disturbing the pieces (very much), and then unroll the felt when you want to work on the puzzle again.


Itinerary: taxi to Leidesplein. Stroll up Leidestraat to Scheltema (at the Herengraacht). Onwards to the Kinderboekwinkel, just off the Spui. Lunch at Café Luxembourg. Stroll along the Binnen Amstel (see photo) and on past the Stopera to the Joodsmuseum. Then, home: stroll across the Amstel to the Rembrandtplein, then down the Reguliersgracht to Weteringschans and across the Singelgracht to Ferdinand Bolstraat. On the other side of the Heineken plant, I stopped for a black and tan at O’Donnell’s. I’d have had two, but they didn’t take plastic. In truth I was bleeding cash. I paid the taxi in cash, missing New York very much; the Kinderboekwinkel (where I bought Groene Eieren met Ham), they took plastic but only with PINs, and I’ve never used that feature of my credit card; ditto the Joodsmuseum; and then O’Donnell’s. I felt so leaky that I actually totted up my outlays when I got home, and then I subtracted the cash on hand (deceptive: the coins here really mean something), remembered tipping the hotel doorman for the taxi, and, what do you know, all but € 1.50 was accounted for. I would never do such an accounting at home.

I am going to have to read the Dutched Dr Seuss out loud a lot before I try it out on Will. (You try it, getting the rhythm right: “Niet als ik niet kan zien wat het zijn.”)


Walking down the Reguliersgraacht, a very quiet canal, just far enough to the east to be off the beaten track — I doubt that many people who aren’t actually neighbors tromp up and down it — it hit me: just as there are romantic people who cannot revisit a city in which they have lived in love with someone who is no longer part of their life, so I don’t much care to visit Amsterdam again until I can do so in the company of an inhabitant. There are certainly many more things to see; there always are. But the things that I want to do, I don’t want to do alone, or with other people who know the place even less well than I do. I want to have a friend who will suggest taking a tram to a movie theatre, and then maybe meeting up with (his or her) friends afterward. In short, I want to live here for a spell, but sociably. As tall orders go, it’s sky-high. But as it is, my familiarity with Amsterdam has carried me right up to a thick pane of glass that only someone who lives here can pass me through, and what I feel now, mostly, is excluded.

Or you could say that it’s payback for the gloat of possessiveness that descends upon me every time I walk into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is even closer to our apartment than our storage unit is. We keep our cast-offs at the storage unit, and our better things at the museum.


Oh! The other night, Kathleen was remembering that the only thing that she knew about the Netherlands as a little girl was the story of Hans Brinker. I knew it, too, sort of, but I’d forgotten it. What a nice idea it would be, I thought, to get an original Dutch edition! Ahem… I ought to have looked into this at home before puzzling the poor young salesclerk at the Children’s Book Shop. The echt-itude of Mary Mapes Dodge’s tale (published in 1865) is such that no one has ever seen fit to translate it into Nederlands. If I weren’t already an old duffer, I’d be mortified.

“Maar ik ben ook God maar.”
14 May 2012

Monday, May 14th, 2012

The world wasn’t ready for Nescio. I’m speaking of the writer who wasn’t well known even in the Netherlands until after his death, at the age of 79, in 1961. In 1961, the world was not even ready for the Beats, the idealistic young men whose future Nescio foretold in less than a handful of stories written before World War I. His predictions have been so completely established by experience that idealistic young men are now more likely to be seen as self-indulgent than as high-minded. This would have saddened him. He liked to think that the future would turn out endless generations of idealistic young men, sitting on the shore and dreaming about capturing the sun, or “blowing up all the offices,” even if he knew that the luckier among them would wind up prospering, as he did, in those very offices.

Gods tron is nog ongeschokt. Zijn wereld gaat haar gang maar. Af en toe glimlacht God even om de gewichtige heeren, di denken dat ze heel wat beteekenen. Nieuwe Titaantjes zijn al weer bezig kleine rotsblokjes op te stapelen om ‘m van z’n verhevenheid te storten en dan de wereld eens naar hun zin in te richten. Hij lacht maar en denkt: ‘Goed zoo jongers, zoo mal als je bent, ben je me toch liever dan die mooie wijze heeren. ‘t Spijt me dat je je nek moet breken en dat ik die heeren moet laten gedijen, maar ik ben ook God maar.’ En zoo gaat alles z’n gangetje en wee hem die vraagt: Waarom?


God’s throne is still unshaken. His world just takes its course. Now and then God smiles for a moment about the important gentlemen who think they’re really something. A new batch of little Titans are still busy piling up little boulders so that they can topple him down off his heights and arrange the world the way they think it should be. He only laughs, and thinks: “That’s good, boys. You may be crazy but I still like you better than the proper, sensible gentlemen. I’m sorry you have to break your necks and I have to let the gentlemen thrive, but I’m only God.”

And so everything takes its little course, and woe to those who who ask: Why?

That is the end of Titaantjes (Young Titans), the second of three (or four) early short stories upon which Nescio’s reputation largely rests. (The English rendering is by Damion Searls; it appears in NYRB’s collection, Amsterdam Stories.) If there are still any young titans piling up rocks anywhere, they probably have no higher view than storming the Internet and setting it to rights. Which they may in fact do. The Twentieth Century taught us that our ideals especially must be realistic. Otherwise we wind up in a sanitarium, like Bavink, the young titan who loses his grip just as his paintings begin to command high prices, or else collaborating enthusiastically with Nazis. (Fritz Grönloh, the man behind Nescio, spent the Occupation in retirement; he was almost sixty when it began.) We have to begin by taking people as they are.

Which is what makes these stories so endearing. Idealistic young men aren’t particularly well-behaved, and their habits tend toward the slovenly; their manners excite the impatience of everyone who has found a settled place in the world. But not Nescio’s. He may have put utopian dreams behind him, but he has not drawn a line beneath the innocent hope of young dreamers. Innocence makes them, like the lilies of the field, beloved of God, who, in Nescio’s view, prefers them to hardworking meritocrats. Just so long as they outgrow that innocence, and stop asking “Why?”

No: when Grönloh died, the youth of all the Western world was about to embark on a prolonged Titanic project that, happily, wore away in the tides of time, and never got high enough to collapse and cause damage. Nobody would have wanted to read Nescio then — nobody except the oldsters who smiled now and then.   


It is almost noon, and I shall shortly have to decide where the day is going. This evening, Kathleen has a dinner at the Hotel de l’Europe (where I’ve always wanted to stay), but until then, she is free to be as tired as she feels. I, however, am wondering about lunch. Our hotel has no simple in-and-out coffee shop; plain food is available only via room service. There is a McDonald’s just up the road, but after yesterday’s long outing I’m not feeling particularly adventurous. With luck, I’ll rouse Kathleen to take a walk over to the Sarphati Park, in the center of De Pijp, at some point in the afternoon. If she is too tired for that, I shall go by myself. Now that I’ve announced all these possible plans, I wonder what will actually happen.



13 May 2012

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

We are not staying at the Hotel American, but we have a painting of it in our living room at home, so of course I had to try to get a better photograph of it than the one I took ten years ago.

On our first non-travel day in Amsterdam on this, my second trip to Amsterdam, I managed without really intending to do so to recapitulate everything that I liked about the first visit. Kathleen and I walked from our hotel, at the southern edge of De Pijp, to the Dam and back, and we never retraced our steps to any significant degree. (Strictly speaking, I believe, we did not retrace any steps at all aside from the Singel embankment between the Leidestraat and the Spui.) But I had been almost everywhere before, and almost everywhere that we went had a personal resonance. Take the Leidestraaat itself: how many times did I walk up and down that street ten years ago? Probably fewer than a dozen, but it felt more like a semester’s worth. With the Athenaeum, the American Book Center, and Waterstone’s, the Spui is something of a book district, and it is also the home of the Café Luxembourg, which I patronised often enough last time to regard it as a personal hang-out. On the way home, I realized that Van Baerlestraat, which Kathleen wanted to pass along in search of a stop that she liked, constituted close to a bee-line between the Leidesplein (where I’d thought about making a rest stop at the American) and our hotel. We had walked much of the street the last time I was here (this is Kathleen’s fifth visit) because I’d cajoled Kathleen into seeing an exhibition of maps of Amsterdam at the Municipal Archives — rather more of a walk than Kathleen, not quite as keen about cartography as I am, had in mind. (Van Baerlestraat is also the address of the Concertgebouw, which I have yet to get inside of; and it forms the southern edge of the big lawn behind the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum.) Since my goals for the day were modest — I wanted (a) to buy a copy of the writings of J H F Grönloh, formally known as “Nescio” (pronounced, I now know for sure, “Nessio”), and (b) to have lunch at the Luxembourg — my success left me without any further ideas, and the sheer favorable drift of the rest of the day was an unimagined gift.

There were a couple of new things. We walked into the Begijnhof, about which, for the moment, I am only going to say that it’s a good thing that there wasn’t one in New York City thirty years ago, because I don’t think that Kathleen would have married me if something like it had been an option. (“Hard to say,” was Kathleen’s opinion.) And we walked down the Kalverstraat, which, according to an article in the Times, is “Amsterdam’s busiest shopping street.” Yes, it probably is! But I had been mislead by the reporter’s conversation with a sales clerk specialising in Mont Blanc pens into the sloppy conclusion that “busiest” meant “most luxurious.” That, it definitely is not. It has been a long time since my last visit to an American shopping mall, but that’s what the emporia of the Kalverstraat brought to mind. I ought to have known better, because I walked along the Pieter Cornelisz Hoofstraat a few times in 2002 (it was right round the corner from our hotel at the time), and that’s where the Gucci shop is. Not anywhere near Kalverstraat, which is tat from end to end.


At the Athenaeum newsstand, which was open at 11:55, when we reached the Spui and found that the Athenaeum itself doesn’t open until noon on Sunday, I bought a copy of Het Parool, the newspaper that I adopted ten years ago, and read the following headline: “Amsterdam moet nog veel meer extra bezuinigen,” and I understood it well enough (with a little help from my grasp of current affairs) to know that the last word, which I didn’t recognize, must mean something like “to go on a diet.” Which it does, actually; it means “to economize.” (I was able to buy a handy dictionary right after lunch; knowing that I’d buy new ones anyway, I had left my collection at home.) I was amazed, all day, by how intelligible the local language was. Years of desultorily listening to Teach Yourself Dutch have apparently opened a crack in my brain through which something like familiarity has seeped. Asking myself why I study a language all the educated speakers of which make sure to speak English — and I’m not the only one asking — I have to answer, simply, that I find the language gezellig. That’s one of those untranslatable terms that means much more than its accepted equivalents in English, which in this case include “sociable” and “companionable.”

Amsterdam is certainly the most sociable and companionable city that I’ve ever been to. This isn’t to say that it’s friendly — that’s an American misunderstanding of the facts of life. We can all have only so many friends; the trick is to enjoy living among people who aren’t — and to make sure that they enjoy living with us. There is no contradiction, in this wonderful town, between “civil” and “comfortable,” no sense of constraint about the former that puts the latter off the menu.

Everyone has been very nice about my stabs at Dutch. (Most clerks and servers seem to think that I’m Dutch to begin with, for some reason.) I don’t think that I could say anything intrinsically interesting, but that’s not the point. I’m not called on to say interesting things to people whom I don’t know very well; how obnoxious I would be if I thought that I were. 

12 May 2012

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

We’re exhausted, but we’re here, and this look out the hotel room made me wish that I could forget what a pill I was last week, about traveling. On the plane over the Atlantic, I filled more than half of a Field Notes Memo Book with a scrawled stream of consciousness in which I did propose some plausible explanations — plausible to me, anyway. If the plausibility doesn’t evaporate, I’ll share my thoughts. But not right now.

We were so famished when we arrived at the hotel that we went straight to one of the dining rooms for a late lunch. I struck up an accord with the server by pronouncing the soft-shell crab salad that I ordered “mooi.” She breezed by the table later and asked, simply, “Lekker?” I said “Yes!” (hopeless). I asked for “de rekening, altsublieft,” and said “Tot ziens” on my way out. At no point was I buried alive with Dutch that I couldn’t understand. So there’s some ice that got broken.

More anon. I can barely think straight; I’ve been awake for over twenty-four hours.

Gotham Diary:
A bientôt
11 May 2012

Friday, May 11th, 2012

Here’s hoping that all readers have a pleasant time of it while I’m away. For myself, I’ll be sightseeing on the outside and stocktaking on the inside. Leaving my island home seems more brutal and unnatural than ever. The forward part of my mind is genuinely looking forward to visiting two favorite cities. The bulk of it, though, is so swamped by what feels like a simple prehistoric dread of travel that I wonder what pleasure I’ll be able to take.



Gotham Diary:
10 May 2012

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Last night, at bedtime, I watched a few episodes of Kipper. It wasn’t ideal; ideal would be waking up to Kipper. But it was the first time that I got to enjoy the show on a normal television setup, with more picture and lots more sound than Will’s iPad cranks out. When I get back from Amsterdam, I’m going to find out more about this show, which is top-drawer in every way. The insouciant jazz is in the same key as the breezy animation. The design, while discreetly colorful, is plain, and it keeps the sugar content very low. Probably because I lead a quiet life physically, I don’t get much out of massages and other spa treatments. But my cerebral life is fairly active, and nothing, I find, calms me down like fifteen minutes of Kipper.

Every animated entertainment aimed at children has to have its rules, but I haven’t figured out Kipper‘s yet. There are four principal characters: Kipper, who is some sort of extraordinarily good-natured sheepdog; Tiger, a neurotic terrier; Pig, who talks, and his sibling, Arnold, who doesn’t. Silence is the key to Arnold’s charmed life; because he can’t tell the others what he has seen or heard, he is privy to all sorts of wonders. Sometimes, as in “Clouds,” Kipper can follow along, but it’s more often the case that, while Kipper and Tiger make their discoveries and get into scrapes, and Pig tries to stay out of trouble, Arnold is the one who really knows the score. Even though he likes to suck his thumb.

The scrapes that Kipper and Tiger get into, in most episodes, are sometimes fanciful and sometimes not. Kipper’s world is replete with marvels only some of which are available to human children. Everything seems sensible and realistic, but in the manner of dreams. A hose comes loose, and recoils, powered by the water streaming through it, against Kipper’s house. Suddenly it pops in through his window. By the time Kipper and Tiger find out what has happened (they can’t get any water pressure at their inflatable pool), Kipper’s house has flooded to windowsill height. The two doggies paddle around and come to rest on the stairs. “Don’t you wish it could always be like this?” says Kipper. Later, he calls out to Pig, “Don’t open the door!” But of course Pig does open the door and is knocked down by a tidal wave. No harm done! They were all meaning to go swimming anyway. Yes, I do wish it were always like that.

There are no authority figures in Kipper. Tiger is forever running into difficulties, having asked for it in most cases. (He will wear a red slicker when passing by a bull in a field.) But nobody gets into trouble. Nobody scolds Kipper for standing by while his house floods. Nobody scolds him for wasting water. Nor does anyone make the snacks that he and Tiger always seem to be picnicking on. (Come to think of it, Pig is a bit of a cook.) Everyday household problems are not unknown in this world, but they don’t arise with everyday regularity. I’m keenly aware of how different that is from a world in which everyday household problems are overlooked. I would find the latter extremely agitating. But Kipper persuades me, for minutes at a time, anyway, that there is no need to worry about providence.

There’s a cheeriness about Kipper that reminds me of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! — or rather, of John, Paul, George and Ringo. But I try to ignore that; it’s the sort of clever, sophisticated insight that clutters up a very simple pleasure.


What was a pleasure, waking up this morning, was realizing that I’ll be sleeping here tonight. Tomorrow night, I won’t be sleeping at all; I’ll be in a plane. (Although I may give Lunesta the supreme test; if it can lull me to sleep over the Atlantic, I’ll be knocked over with gratitude.) Tomorrow, I’ll pack. Perhaps I grew up a time when it took ten days to get to Europe and back, I have a hard time thinking that I can go to Amsterdam without abandoning the apartment for months. I will ask Ray Soleil to look in if he can, late next week, but it’s not vital.

Fire Island is completely different. Kathleen remains in town during two of the weeks, and in any case I’m only three hours away, door to door, at the most. I told my barber yesterday that I’ll have to find a good barbershop in Bay Shore, because I am not coming back into town for that kind of reason.

Kathleen will pack tonight — on the late side, as usual. She has just been asked to attend a testimonial dinner at the Waldorf that she thinks that it would impolitic to miss.

Gotham Diary:
9 May 2012

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Having written quite a lot yesterday, I’m inclined to take it easy today. It is also the case that my mind is fairly blank. All I can think of is packing, connectivity in an Amsterdam hotel, and how easily a concierge’s instructions will get me aboard a streetcar.

I wore my new green pants to lunch yesterday, and I told my friend that I was thinking of taking them to Amsterdam. She recommended against it. “I want to be remembered,” I said. “Well, in that case…”

The other thing that I’m certain to do is to visit Scheltema, or whatever it’s called now (if it’s still there!) and ask for a copy of Nescio’s stories. I’ve had a very hard time with the Amsterdam Stories, because they fly me back so powerfully to my own feckless youth and I don’t want to revisit the period. Again, at lunch yesterday, a pearl of wisdom dropped onto my tongue. I told my friend that I didn’t mind being old, because for so long I was afraid that my youth would never end.

It doesn’t bother me that our Amsterdam hotel, on the Amstelkanaal, lies outside the purview of tourist maps of the city (the DK guide that I picked up stops a few blocks to the north, at Sarphati Park), but I’m somewhat disheartened to note that St Pancras Station Hotel, where we’ll be staying in London for a couple of nights, is always just out of sight, beyond the edge of most Central London maps. Euston Station, next door, usually makes it in. I should note that staying at St Pancras was all my own idea; I’ve wanted to stay there ever since the pile was restored to its Victorian splendor. A case of answered prayers…


At bedtime last night, still in the mood, after “The Turn of the Screw,” for something dark and rich, I couldn’t decide between James and Wharton. For a minute. I chose Wharton. I read the first section of “Bunner Sisters” before falling asleep. I read the rest of the story, which is just shy of novella length, this afternoon.

My usual response to reading something wonderful for the first time is dismay: how did it take me so long to get to this? I didn’t have that feeling about “Bunner Sisters,” though; I was grateful to have had it waiting for me. I was wholly engaged by the melodrama, which at first seemed not to be as bad as I feared, but then got much, much worse. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I won’t say anything about it — only a word about Eliza Ann Bunner, from whose point of view it is told (in the third person, happily.)

What’s thrilliing about this unassuming dress-maker is how extravagantly — how just short of extravagantly — Edith Wharton imagines her highly circumscribed life. To some degree, the woman’s life is narrow because she is superstitiously pious. “I always think if we ask for more what we have may be taken from us,” she says to Evelina, the prettier sister, whom she hopes to see married one day. But it’s not all timorousness. Eliza Ann is truly at home in the barely genteel back room that she shares with Evelina, and Wharton takes pains to cleanse her prose of any trailing pity that she might feel for someone so comparatively disadvantaged.

The infrequency of her walks made them the chief events of her life. The mere act of going out from the monastic quiet of the shop into the tumult of the streets filled her with a subdued excitement which great too intense for pleasure as she was swallowed by the engulfing roar of Broadway or Third Avenue, and began to do timid battle with their incessant cross-currents of humanity. After a glance or two into the great show-windows she usually allowed herself to be swept back into the shelter of a side-street, and finally regained her own roof in a state of breathless bewilderment and fatigue; but gradually, as her nerves were soothed by the familiar quiet of the little shop, and the click of Evelina’s pinking machine, certain sights and sounds would detach themselves from the torrent along which she had been swept, and she would devote the rest of the day to a mental reconstruction of the different episodes of her walk, till finally it took shape in her thought as a consecutive and highly-coloured experience, from which, for weeks afterwards, she would detach some fragmentary recollection in the course of her long dialogues with her sister.

The composure of this recollective habit is really enviable. When the story really gets going, Eliza Ann is as dear to you as any character you’ll ever know. This is the sort of bravura call for sympathy that Dickens used to trumpet by the hour, but either too sharp or too flat and in any case always too loud for pleasure. There is enormous sadness in “Bunner Sisters,” but the story resists dismissal as “pathetic” with all of Eliza Ann’s remarkable force of character.