Archive for June, 2012

Gotham Diary:
Arrogant Hoo-haw
6 June 2012

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

Let’s start with the attractions. The Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of David Auburn’s play, The Columnist, was very well cast, and the actors never failed to entertain. John Lithgow’s impersonation of Joseph Alsop, one of the most powerful columnists in the history of American journalism, was great fun while also engaging sympathy for an unsympathetic character. Grace Gummer, playing Alsop’s step-daughter (here called Abby), brought all the sharpness of changing times to Alsop’s stuffy house. Margaret Colin (as Susan Mary Alsop, briefly Joe’s wife) and Boyd Gaines (as Stewart Alsop, the younger, far more likeable brother) did the very best with their roles, and then some. Brian Smith evoked an appealing young Russian with a wry sense of humor. In supporting roles, Stephen Kunken (David Halberstam) and Marc Bonan (Philip) were unexceptionable. 

John Lee Beatty’s sets for the outdoor scenes were memorable as well as appealing, capturing the verdant formality of the nation’s capital with textured rectangular abstractions backed by the tops of Washington’s distinctive lampposts.


Mr Beatty’s sets for the indoor scenes were of a piece with the play itself: Grade A Undergraduate. The interiors — a library and a living room — did not even remotely suggest one of the most gracious and well-appointed homes in Georgetown; what they did suggest was a shoestring budget. Alsop’s desk was a tiny oval affair, barely the size of a boudoir table, and the wall of books behind it soaked up half of everything the actors had to say. What the actors had to say teetered between standard expository theatre talk — the familiar but stylized intercourse in which playwrights convey loads of background information through what pretends to be a conversation among intimates — and urgent arguments about love and politics that sought to make a connection between the two, all coated with the dulled gleam of formerly conventional manners of speech. It was all pretty fusty.

I never could decide whether David Auburn was trying to tell us that Joe Alsop went all out in support of the Vietnam War as a way of compensating, with masculine bellicosity, for being a rather unloving closeted homosexual; or whether, in the alternative, the message was that even a semi-closeted gay man could put the patriarchal power structure to personal use if he were ballsy enough. Insofar as playwrighting is like ballroom dancing, Mr Auburn was an uncertain leader, wavering between these two approaches to his central character. He ought to have taken greater pains to avoid the first impression altogether, as it was not supported by the facts — the facts presented in the play itself. He ought to have resisted the allure of a blackmail scenario, setting the audience quaking with dread of the dire damage of revelation. Joe Alsop was never afraid of blackmail — it turns out. That’s the big surprise in the climactic scene. Knowing that he’d been photographed in bed with a young man by Russian agents, he took the photographs straight to the American ambassador; he made sure that everyone knew what low and dirty tricks the Russians would stoop to. His timing must have been perfect, because this brazen defiance actually worked. That it did work would have been something meaty for a play to chew on, but not, perhaps, in a climactic scene. In the climax of The Columnist, the audience realizes that it has been had.

The problem with the alternative message is that it leaves a big question untouched: why would anybody, gay or straight, have wanted to support the Vietnam War? How could so many establishment types have been so gung-ho about so profoundly a misinformed project? The answer to that question has nothing to do with blackmail, or sexuality, or whether Joe Alsop could allow himself to be lovingly intimate with anybody. The answer is to be found not between the sheets but behind the desks — the desks at Groton and all the other elite Anglophone academies on both sides of the Atlantic, where no end of arrogant racist sexist WASPy hoo-haw was poured into the ears of privileged boys, deforming generations of bright and powerful men.

That would have been one way to put Joseph Alsop to good dramatic use. An even better one might have focused on Alsop’s marriage to Susan Mary Patten, widowed mother of two. The essence of this might-have-been play was crammed into one awkward scene in The Columnist — awkward because we needed more. Susan Mary thought that she knew what she was doing when she married Alsop; he was clear about his carnal circuitry. But she found that she was wrong. She found that she did not care for life with a man who had no real use for a woman except as social fixtures at the other end of a long dining table of luminaries. She wanted more. I’d have liked to see a play about her. I hope that Margaret Colin gets another, better chance. I also hope that she gets better dresses.


O joy! O rapture unforeseen! I just found the lid to Will’s teapot. Less than an inch in diameter, the lid blends in well with the rug in the blue room, and I must have missed it five or six times while poring over the floor in search of it. Then, just now, as I was folding a T shirt, there it was. Ecstasy, really.

I can’t tell whether progress is being made. In the old days, I misplaced things all the time, and was miserable about it, for a while; but, hey, I was always losing things. I managed to live with it. Now, things are different. I do not misplace things. What never? Well, hardly ever — and it’s much harder to take when I do. In the past week, I’ve suffered a streak of numbskull droppings, such as leaving my wallet on a dark bookshelf where I’d never put it if I were conscious. As a rule, though, I’ve gotten very good about knowing where things are. Lately, that includes Will’s toys, of which, suddenly, there are lots.

While Will plays with his toys, I entertain myself by picking up after him. The secret is understanding that healthy boys crave disorder. I am not entirely in on this secret, but I act as though I were. I do not groan when Will overturns a basket or evacuates a box. No, that’s what they’re for! So! Here are four of his five little VWs; where’s the green one? Got it! All the pieces of the stegosaurus jigsaw puzzle accounted for — bravo! I kept on eye on the teapot lid for most our time yesterday, but at some point my vigilance must have slipped. It was the first thing that I looked for this morning, and not being able to find it was disheartening. It was only after I’d put everything away, and even carried what was left of the teaset (everything but the lid) into the kitchen to wash it —

I should explain that, at first, we pretended that the teapot lid wasn’t removable, because, as Will’s mother reasoned, he would only want to fill it with water if he knew that he could. So we put that off as long as possible. But by the time he realized that the lid wasn’t a dummy (even though he needed help pulling it out — tight fit!), he’d moved on. Why fill a teapot with water when you can fill it with raisins? It’s likely that I didn’t see the teapot lid on the floor because I was still training my eyes for stray raisins.  

Gotham Diary:
5 June 2012

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Yesterday was a bleak day, and somehow the bleakness got under my skin. I could think of nothing to say or do. The sense of inanition was so frightening that it kept a truly depressed state of mind at bay. I wondered if I’d suffered a stroke of some kind, so empty did I feel, so deeply bored by every thought. 

It was imperative that I do something. I could pay the bills, but paying the bills never takes very long, and it always fills me with guilty resolve: spend less. Even when I do. The main thing, though, is that it doesn’t take very long, so I put off paying the bills and did the ironing instead. I had a great pile of ironing, accumulated since our return from Amsterdam and London. Nothing but napkins, handkerchiefs, and pillow-cases, but massive. I thought: I’ll watch something that will take me out of myself. In the end, though, I went for something that I hadn’t seen before, a much safer bet in chancy moods. If you don’t know what’s going to happen, you never have that awful sinking feeling that this isn’t going to do it for me. There wasn’t much in the basket that I hadn’t seen, but one promising item featured Maggie Smith in a STEPHEN POLIAKOFF production called Capturing Mary.

I capitalized the writer/director’s name because, on the jewel box artwork, it appears in much larger type than that of the title, and in much much larger type than “Maggie Smith.” It’s quite as if Stephen Poliakoff were Alfred Hitchcock. Which he may be, for all I know. Because I watch television — not even the latest round of Mad Men —I can’t say if Capturing Mary has ever been aired here. I bought Capturing Mary when I bought Glorious 39, also by Mr Poliakoff, which bristles with stars (Bill Nighy, Eddie Redmayne, Romola Garai, Julie Christie, and Jeremy Northam). What both films have in common is a backward glance at sinister doings in the highest echelons of English wealth and power. In Glorious 39, a young woman discovers that the family into which she has been adopted are keen to appease Hitler. In Capturing Mary, the wickedness is more subtle, or vague in a Henry James sort of way.

Maggie Smith plays a woman who returns to a great house in Mayfair — empty but scrupulously maintained — to exorcise a demon. Long ago, back in the Fifties, she was an up-and-coming journalist, the “voice of youth,” someone who had taught herself to talk posh at university — and who thought that she could take on the establishment, or at least meet it on her own terms. Invited to choice soirées at the home of a very rich man, she became aware of Greville White, an insidious gentleman who would sidle up to the famous guests and express his regret that their latest novel or cabinet move was not up to par. Eventually, he cornered Mary herself in the kitchen, and regaled her with some gossip. Then he took her down to the wine cellar, where he spilled out truly appalling stories about famous figures — bishops who thrashed boys until they bled, magnates who kept girls as personal slaves; derisive clubland chitchat about Jews and “niggers.” Appalled, Mary fled. At another party, sometime later, Greville presented her with the key to his house, of which she should avail herself at her convenience. Very creepy — because it was clear that carnality didn’t come into it.

Mary rebuffed these strange advances, only to witness the collapse of her journalism career. Assignments were canceled, contracts dropped, new jobs closed to her. Mary knew that Greville was behind it — but was he? (And why?) You’ll have to see for yourself. Greville is played by David Williams, a smooth talker who sounds exactly like Simon Callow if you close your eyes, and Young Mary by Ruth Wilson, whom I’ve never seen before. The Fifties settings are luscious, but the women, aside from a few beauties, are dependably dowdy, dressed to the nines but looking like Mamie Eisenhower just the same. You do not wish that you could have been there. Maggie Smith plays one of her soiled, disreputable personae (which reminds me: I need to see The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne again), making you shudder ever time she takes a pull from her silver flask. It’s conceivable that her footage was shot in two days.

In any case, Capturing Mary pulled me right out of the doldrums. Plus: all the ironing done.   

Gotham Diary:
Men and Their Grossness
4 June 2012

Monday, June 4th, 2012

When I was a kid, “gross” was the term of all-purpose disgust. (“Disapproval” would be a better word, but teenagers do not experience anything so mild or distant or reasonable as disapproval.) For all I know, it’s still current. In the phrase that I’ve quoted for the header, it means something more specific.

“Men and their grossness” comes from a passage in Elizabeth Taylor’s novel, The Sleeping Beauty. Isabella, a widow, is out for the evening with Vinny Tumulty, a friend whom she has expected to ask her to marry him. Instead, he has declared his love for someone else; but he continues to do the offices of a good friend, keeping Isabella company on the eve of an auction at which the contents of her suburban-London home are going to be sold off. (Isabella will continue to live in her seaside house, in a town wonderfully called “Seething.”) Vinny and Isabella dine in Soho. After dinner, Isabella’s heel is caught in a grate, and she notices that the women in the street are staring at Vinny, right through her. Her revulsion comes back to her the next afternoon, when she discovers the rudiments of Vinny’s secret.

She felt a miserable separation and embarrassment with Vinny, having caught him out in what she supposed was something shady and unsavoury. A distaste for men and their grossness put a distance between them which she had felt the evening before in Soho when women had glanced at him from doorways and street-corners. She had once thought him such a fastidious, tender man, and now she saw that she did not know him at all. Over and over she made her explanations for being in Market Swanford and he listened courteously and smiled.

The grossness of men is, I’m pretty sure, the ability, if that’s the word, that men have to enjoy sex without love, or at any rate without the accoutrements that Isabella deems necessary. It ought to be borne in mind that Vinny does nothing to encourage the staring; he is simply a well-built gentleman minding his own business. He also happens to be in the first throes of real love — but not for Isabella. Isabella is a “silly woman” — in the eyes of her creator as well as those of any fellow-character in the novel. She’s endearing, once you realize that the novel is not going to be about her, and she puts her finger on her shortcomings very ably when she reflects, whilst in the company of a woman friend who shares her desperate faith in anti-ageing creams and slimming massages, “For we never grew up.” Men and their grossness, Taylor implies, is something that bothers girls, not women.

Taylor gives us a fine taste of women and their grossness. The penultimate chapter begins with Isabella and her friend, Evalie, trying out a new skin cream.

Their faces were caked with a white clay, which, drying, had drawn up their skin beneath so that they could hardly part their lips to speak; from this frightening pallor their discoloured eyes looked mournfully out.

The women are awfully surprised when Isabella’s son, Laurence, walks in unexpectedly.

The vision of those two leprous faces in the greenish gloom, his mother’s absurd confusion, Evalie’s frenzied eyes rolling at him above a piece of red knitting, made Laurence feel the victim of a monstrous joke. He was so thrown-out by the scene that he could not think how he was expected to behave, and from awkwardness walked unsmilingly across the room, forced Isabella to take the little package and said in a cold and angry voice: “Some wedding cake for you.”

Isabella is at first terrified that this is Laurence’s way of telling her that he has gotten married, but the cake is Vinny’s.

Weekend Note:
2 June 2012

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012


It would be wrong to claim that Will kept me on my feet for three hours yesterday. First of all, a big chunk of that time was spent in the back seat of a car, inching up Third Avenue. But even the standing and shuffling around in the blue room can’t be pinned on Will. It was really an episode of closet reorganization. It just so happened to involve nothing but his toys.

At one point, all of the toys that Will has here in our flat were sprawled across the sitting area in the blue room (as distinct from the ever-more-verboten “working area” — my writing table, my computer desk, and my Aeron chair), and I couldn’t help luxuriating in a pleasingly vague dream of Alan Hollinghurst’s despairing description of the scene. I didn’t actually write it out in my head — that would have been work — but every now a glint or angle of sharp prose would flash across my mind, leaving traces of pleasure. While Will played with this and that — at one point, he dumped all of his Plan Toys train set onto the carpet, but only in order to pack it all back into the box, everything except the little tree, which I suppose lacks the true railroading spirit of metal and motion — I kept my eye on various collections and undertook, for the first time since last summer, to gather like with like. All the crayons here. The wooden blocks there. For a long time, two of Will’s five little Volkswagens went missing. When they turned up, I tossed them into a bin, or wastebasket, that I bought at Sustainable NYC a year or so ago. It’s a clever assemblage of recycled plastic and old newspapers, and it looks great with a big beach ball in its open mouth, something like an ice-cream cone.  Aside from the bin, I had two more or less presentable boxes to work with, so that the toys wouldn’t have to be tucked under furniture or in my closet. Eventually, everything fit, right about time for Kipper.

A good many of the toys are a lot older than Will. One recent tidying-up of the deeper recesses of the linen closet unearthed a stack of coloring books that went back to the late Eighties, when we kept such things on hands for our country neighbors, one of whom, last we heard, has graduated from college and is dating an Annapolis grad.


A dinner that could have been better; or, what a difference thirty seconds makes. The slight slab of piemontese rib-eye looked really easy to overcook, and overcooked it was; although not by much; but “overcooked” is a bad steak flavor, just as “burned” is usually bad for butter, no matter how partial the burning is. Had it been up to me, I’d have asked for a steak about half-again as thick, but that would have been too much meat for the two of us; better to learn how to cook what Agata & Valentina serves up. The sweet potatoes held our hands through the difficulties, which were not great on the steak front but emphasized overall by a new vegetable dish: celery sautéed with mushrooms.

It’s a good dish! The celery tastes like fresh, raw celery, only softer and subtler. It does not taste like the coppery death-vegetable that we knew as children from various canned products, spaghetti sauces and chop suey mostly. The recipe was Elizabeth David’s, and I’ll try it again (and again), because there are really so few green vegetables out there that a new class is desperately wanted, and celery offers real possibilities. I can’t say that the celery and the mushrooms melded, but they didn’t fight, and the garlic that was called for completely disappeared.


After finishing The Folding Star the other day, I wanted to listen to accordingly murky, mysterious, preferably Belgian music. I spent rather a long time looking for a recording of Schoenberg’s Pelléas et Melisande, but I couldn’t find it, so I settled for Hugo Wolf’s Spanish Song Book, as sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. A long time ago, I was listening to this music in a speculative frame of mind, and the fourth song, an urgent lullabye about windy treetops, stuck in my brain forever. The other songs just sounded self-important, and I was not eager to forgive the composer for his dismissive remarks about Brahms. Perhaps for all these reasons, the songs were the perfect thing to listen to the other day,  in the wake of Hollinghurst’s novel: I’d known them forever, but only in the shallowest way; I didn’t really know them at all. Clearly, it was time to assemble a playlist around them.

Every now and then I go downstairs to the music department of the Barnes & Noble just up the high street; the selection may be patchy-to-bald, but it’s always a pleasure to paw through what’s on offer, and I always buy something. The other day, it was Carmina Burana. For as long as there have been CDs, I’ve owned only one recording (James Levine’s), and one has been enough. Now that I’m in the playlist phase of music appreciation, however, plurality is indicated, so, in addition to ordering the Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos recording that I grew up with (sort of; I had one before that, but I remember none of the particulars), I bought Sir Simon Rattle’s version. I had the most unedifying thoughts whilst listening to this during the living-room tidying. It wasn’t just the bit of “Mi chiamano Mimì” that seemed derivative; the whole damned oratorio (or whatever is) seemed stolen from major motion pictures. I didn’t mind, really, but I did feel a bit soiled, knowing it as well as I did, whistling along as though I hadn’t listened to anything else for years; and seeing, or hearing, that it was all one very well-constructed kick line.

Earlier, I read “The Black Box,” Jennifer Egan’s “Twitter” story in The New Yorker. All I’ll say about it now is that, as with the PowerPoint diary in A Visit From the Goon Squad, the very excellence of the performance shows up the limitations of the form; and, as in Helen DeWitt’s Lighting Rods, we are seduced by a way of talking for a reason: so that we’ll never be seduced by it a second time. Anyone who attempts to imitate Egan’s experiment with short sentences (tweeting turns out to be entirely beside her point) will demonstrate nothing but deafness. “Black Box” is a baroque variation on themes set forth in every airline’s safety show. Incidentally, I was surprised to see that Egan’s “dissociation” techniques (for dealing with unwanted carnal intrusions) so closely matched Edward St Aubyn’s, in Never Mind, the first of the Melrose novels. You fly out of your body up to a perch from which you look down on what is happening to you. It’s too sorrowful to think much about, and it leaves me convinced that I don’t understand a thing about sex.


In the space of several seconds, late this afternoon, I put down Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth novel, The Sleeping Beauty, and picked up her tenth, The Wedding Group. When I have done with The Wedding Group, I’ll have read all of Taylor’s novels. I thought that The Sleeping Beauty was going to break the spell; there was something about the opening chapters that I didn’t catch, or that didn’t catch me. But presently Mrs Tumulty appeared, and I was roaring. The next thing I knew, bigamy (of all things) was being contemplated.

Although there is a love story at the center of The Sleeping Beauty, a good deal of the book is taken up with other people’s doings. Very amusing is the surreptitious betting on horses that Isabella and her son Laurence indulge (each disapproving of the other’s). One of the amusements of being a novelist writing about bettors is getting to dream of names of horses. You don’t much care if Dumb Blonde or Rokeby Venus wins a race or even runs. Taylor slips in the names without warning, so that you have to be ready when Stream of Consciousness, suddenly introduced, does not mean what it usually means. At the other end of Taylor’s vast range of characters, we have a mean-spirited mother who can’t bear the company of her mentally challenged daughter. Terrible things happen in Taylor’s novels. Consider Mrs Arbuthnot, dismissed from the Claremont Hotel when she becomes incontinent, her arthritis making nocturnal visits to the loo down the hall too painful. I won’t say that Taylor makes this funny, but her retailing of Mrs Arbuthnot’s addled dreams (in which the loo can never be located) is not without comic point.

Plus: bigamy! When has that been permitted to accompany a happy ending?  

I’ve been told that all of Taylor’s short stories, originally collected in five volumes, will be published together in the not-too-distant future. I look forward to reading all the novels again, more slowly, taking notes, and framing observations. Certainly the first of these will be that each of Taylor’s novels is a different world, artistically as well as narratively; it sometimes strikes me that each of them was the author’s first.

I’m aware that Taylor’s fiction appeals to me because I have finally arrived at the point of accepting life as it is, something I resisted with a great deal of draining energy until just about the time that I began writing online, which is either twelve or sixteen years ago, depending on how you define “writing” and “online.”


For dinner this evening, a ragù bolognese that I started this afternoon. It came to me as I was clearing up the breakfast things that that was what I wanted for dinner, and, even more, what I wanted to fill the apartment with the scent of. It is savory taken to the verge of sweet. Actually (looking at the time), I’d better get the water on.

Gotham Diary:
Doctrinally Focused
1 June 2012

Friday, June 1st, 2012

The other day, Maureen Dowd complained about the authoritarian attitude of the Roman Catholic Church. Let’s breeze right past whatever it was that inspired a woman brought up in a pious Catholic family to imagine that such complaints might not be a complete waste of time, and proceed to a letter that a former Jesuit priest wrote in agreement. Ms Dowd had said,

So it makes me sad to see the Catholic Church grow so uncatholic, intent on loyalty testing, mind control and heresy hunting. Rather than all-embracing, the church hierarchy has become all-constricting.

To which Tim Iglesias, of Oakland, California, responded,

… I believe that they are pursuing a very deliberate strategy. They have decided that a smaller, more unified and fervently doctrinally focused church community is preferable to a welcoming, diverse and unrully one. All of their actions are consistent with this strategy. I mourn the loss of the catholic Catholic Church.

This exchange seemed as good an occasion as any for teasing out what might lie at the center of the purer church’s doctrinal focus. But first, a little history.

The Roman Catholic Church emerged from its near-death experience at the end of the Eighteenth Century with an appearance that seemed to go back for centuries but a severely altered interior. Beneath the preserved and even refreshed decorative fabric — the church buildings, the vestments, the liturgies, the religious orders, and of course the Apostolic Succession itself — the Church was not at all what it had been. How could it be? Like everything and everyone, it had been cast out of the ancien régime, and obliged to make its own way on its merits. Stripped of properties and the administrative power that went with them, as well as morally authoritative alliances with the governments of Catholic powers (far fewer in number when the commotion subsided), the Church ceased to be a temporal ruler with the unification of Italy. It became a sentimental operation, dispensing pastoral care and comfort to a secular world ever less interested in traditional ideas of the sacred.

This isn’t the place to consider the role played by the industrial revolution in causing huge shifts in how educated people imagined the universe, but I think that we can safely claim that the intellectual energy formerly devoted to working out fine points of metaphysical dogma was now harnessed to understanding the material mechanics of the universe. God, as it were, was left to take care of himself, dogmatically speaking. It is sobering to see how completely such issues as the Trinity and Transubstantiation lost the power to rile up civil discord; matters for which people had been prepared to kill (and die) no longer meshed with anyone’s intellectual outlook. It was against the background of this general indifference to speculative certainties that the Papacy pushed through two dogmatic alterations that would have been hotly contested in earlier times: the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception (1854) and of papal infallibility (1870). The most conspicuous exercise of the latter power concerned the Assumption of Mary (1950). This isn’t the place to assess the drift of ecclesiastical concerns from the core beliefs that were shared by Paul and Augustine, nor to tease out the misogyny implicit in making one woman, the mother of Jesus, alone in holiness of all her sex. It’s enough to note that bodies and sexuality were promoted as matter of doctinal concern, while no attempt was made to alter the institution of the priesthood.  

Inevitably, Church leaders would find themselves confronted with ever-louder complaints from the likes of Maureen Dowd. The Augustinian settlement of Christian sexuality, in which laymen were permitted to marry and procreate but religious men and women were not, dedicating their lives to God, no longer made sense. The Church was no longer functionally above and apart from the secular world of the faithful; as the Protestants had demonstrated, spirituality did not suffer when prelates took wives. (And as for the unspeakable alternative, sought out by too many priests under the benighted protection of bishops whose allegiance to the confraternity was far stronger than any pastoral concern, we shall not speak of it.) While there might not be any objection to retirement from the world, insofar as it remained in and of the world, the Church’s insistence that it was nevertheless apart transformed it into what it has become: a hierarchical confraternity of celibate males that claims to have the first word, the last word, and every word in between on the subject of the Church’s constitution. If you are not a member of this confraternity, you have no standing to engage in a discussion — not that discussion is encouraged among those who are. This is the unlovely organization that, according to Tim  Iglesias, Church leaders would like to purify.

The only object of doctrinal focus, therefore — at least, for Roman Catholics who are not priests — is the identity of the Church as an organization run and officiated by unmarried men. That is what being a member of the Roman Catholic Church has come down to.