Archive for September, 2012

Gotham Diary:
Pouring, Would Be Snoring
28 September 2012

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Last night, Ray Soleil had dinner with us. This gave him not only a chance to catch up with Kathleen but a convenient departure time for the spiriting away of furniture through the lobby, a practice frowned upon during what, even though this is a residential building, we shall have to call business hours. The piece that Ray was taking — happily, he’s found a spot for it in someone else’s home — lost the game of musical chairs that ensued when the wicker armchair, a stout piece that was purchased for my use, surviving not only that but also several years exposed to the elements on the balcony and Kathleen’s favorite perch, was brought inside during the evacuation. When it decided to stay, some other chair had to go. Now that Ray has removed the loser, which was very much in the way for a week, we have our Feuerbach.

(Come on, how often am I going to get to say that?) 

My post-vacation Zen cool is in danger of fraying. The problem is the kitchen. Not the dishwasher, which still isn’t working. (A new motor has been ordered. When the price was quoted to me over the phone, I said, “Perfect!” There was nothing perfect about the price itself, which was pretty steep, but it was much lower than the cost of a new unit, which would also involve delivery, installation, and other inconveniences that would require me to confront the Cerberus in the basement.) Surprisingly, I still don’t mind washing the dishes myself. (I’m very suspicious of this equanimity.) But, what with the cascade of decisions that the clearing of the balcony unloosed, I haven’t had the time or the mental energy to keep the kitchen in shape. Every surface seems to be taken by something that, when I’m harriedly in the middle of something else, is “indispensable.”

What I would like to do is to put on a nice old movie — one of the Bournes, perhaps — and get to work. But I haven’t got a screen in the kitchen anymore. The all-in-one Toshiba, with its self-contained DVD player, was never entirely satisfactory because it would play only American discs, and I’m usually in the mood, in the kitchen, to watch something British. Then the sound went kaput. Even at the loudest volume setting, most dialogue came across as a whisper. I plugged in a pair of auxiliary speakers, but to no avail; all they added was massively distorted bass. So, in the orgy of disencumbrance that constituted the first phase of the balcony operation, I sent the unit off along with the other discards. (There’s probably some brilliant solution involving the iPad and Netflix. In fact, I know there is, because that’s how Will watches his favorite shows.)

Such are my woes: not very serious. I’m hoping that the rain will let up by this evening, so that I won’t have to get wet when it’s time for the Toots Thielemans celebration at TimeWarner Center.


The downside of getting a staggering amount of housework done is that it leaves you staggered. I think that I’m going to go out tonight not because I have the strength but because I’m too weak just to stay home. I’d fall apart. I remind myself that it is not necessary to be punctual for events at the Rose Theatre. Walk in anytime! The cool thing about jazz — and about our aisle seats.

An enormous bag full of antique comestibles went down the chute about ten minutes ago. (There was a tub of Greek olives that — ew!) Four shopping bags full of shopping bags were reduced to two. Is the obsessive accumulation of shopping bags a New York thing, or is it just that everyone in New York accumulates shopping bags, and not just prudential old ladies and general hoarders? I must have discarded thirty Crawford Doyle bags.

Looking around, I can breathe. The place looks normal again.

Gotham Diary:
27 September 2012

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Is there anything more stultifying than paperwork? It’s not necessarily unpleasant or tedious — not necessarily. But it always puts a stop to the pleasing play of the mind upon all that is finest &c. The book that I’m reading, The War of the Austrian Succession, is a tad stultifying as well, with its reversals and general sense of endlessness. The battles are rarely intrinsically decisive — Hohenfriedberg was exceptional for having highly disproportionate losses among the Prussians (few) and the Austro-Saxons (many) — but instead often go to whomever holds the field at the end. (I give up: you win.) This is not the stuff of genuine victory, and no call for triumph. I learn something new in every chapter; for example, did you know that there were fourteen English colonies on the Atlantic Seaboard? Yes, and one of them, Nova Scotia, decided not to join in the Revolution, which is how we get our textbook thirteen. (It’s as if Nova Scotia went French.) Also: I had no idea, for all the reading that I’ve done about Mme de Pompadour, that the Marquis d’Argenson (not one of her chums) was so spectacularly fatuous. Incompetence doesn’t come into it. The man was a utopian noodle-head. In connection with his appointment as chief minister, Reed Browning calls Louis XV “the silliest of kings.” I bristle — but it can’t be denied. A charming man Louis may have been, but his grasp of kingship went no further than managing a family firm (and it didn’t help that half the family was in another country, Spain). In any case, I feel as stuffed with maneuvers as barrel of pork.

For some time now — six months? something like that — Kathleen’s day has become by coming into the living room for her tea and toast and Times and SAD lights. Last week, this new development was substantiated by the new table, which I tilt down every morning but which is tilted up, in the corner, every evening. Today, I added something else to the routine. When Kathleen was done with the newspaper, I opened my Museum calendar and ran through some coming events. We had a first look at the Paul Taylor schedule for March. She gave me the tea towels that she bought at Gracious Home yesterday morning, for me to send on to the owner of our Fire Island House. The towels are a thank-you gift in part, but what I really needed them for was to sweeten a box of thoroughly banal kitchen tools that I packed up by mistake. Nothing would look more rejected and nothing could be more dejecting, at least in my view. It’s terrible to open a package that contains nothing interesting! So: tea towels, carefully chosen by Kathleen to suit the owner’s colors. Now I can box everything up.

If I could go through the calendar at breakfast once a week, that would be a triumphant victory over the forces of inertia! And it’s a good thing that I finally got round to paperwork yesterday, too, because otherwise we’d have missed our first Jazz at Lincoln Center concert, tomorrow night: Toots Thielemans. Kathleen can’t wait. She is an aficianado of the mouth organ.

Gotham Diary:
More For Me
26 September 2012

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

“Contemn” is a word that I often wish to use, but never dare. I was surprised to find it (although I oughtn’t to have been, given the richness of his vocabulary) in Reed Browning’s War of the Austrian Succession. Writing of Maria Theresa (at this time merely Queen of Hungary and Archduchess of Austria) that “she contemned British informality as fully as she distrusted British sensitivity to Austrian interests,” Browning puts some oomph in the old girl’s contempt. To contemn something is much stronger than having contempt for it.

But “contemn” sounds too much like “condemn,” even to the reading ear, not to sprout confusion. Back in the days when my vocabulary was growing so fast that I’d have had to take up residence in a dictionary if I were actually to look up all the new words that I encountered, I fancied for a while that “contemn” was an archaic spelling of the more familiar word. And the times that we live in do not favor the use of an active verb for an unpopular attitude. Reed Browning’s sentence tells us not only that Maria Theresa was disgusted by British manners but that she thought that she was right to do so: she regarded her contempt as salubrious and praiseworthy. We are inclined to see such unpleasant feelings as, at best, unhelpful.

Who is Reed Browning? I gather that he’s on the faculty at Kenyon College in Ohio. His style is ripe and somewhat Gibbonian, and no one at Oxbridge writes like that anymore. Of the final years of Cardinal Fleury’s long career, Browning writes,

But in his prime the cardinal had been a master game-player himself. What is significant here is that by 1742 Fleury was well past his prime, weary and failing. And so he ended up accepting, even endorsing, a military effort against Austria that addressed no definable French need. The judgment of historians has properly been severe: Cardinal Fleury lived too long for his good name.

That sort of capsule summation has gone quite out of fashion. So has Browning’s habit of shifting between individual figures (diplomats, generals, sovereigns) and the entities that they represent (Spain, Prussia, and so on). Truly up-to-date historians take pains not to attribute actions to abstractions.

But the War of the Austrian Succession — what could be more old-fashioned than that, even when it was being fought? For such a long war, there were very few battles. (Browning writes about battles as well as anyone I know.) Everyone seems to have lost the heart for the violence and destruction of warfare. The engagements that did occur were bloody enough, but you can sense the rising discomfort with loss of life (unimagined a thousand years earlier) that would steadily lead to our own humanitarian befuddlement about armed conflict. The armies and navies of the 1740s haunted each other but generally avoided engagement; men and materiel were too expensive to waste in grandstanding. You might almost say that they replaced kicking and shooting with dancing.

The war was launched when Frederick II (not “the Great” quite yet) invaded, occupied, and claimed Silesia, the territory of the upper Oder River valley, rich in coal and other ores, that would become the industrial heartland of Prussia. It is very much part of Poland today, but it forms a distinctive feature of maps of the Second and Third Reichs — it’s a finger, inserted between Poland and Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic), that sticks out in to the southeast, a peninsula of German dominion. It’s amazing that anyone lives there today, because the Nazis threw the Poles out and then the Poles threw the Germans out. Not to mention the death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. (As I said, the industrial heartland.) Frederick’s claim to Silesia was acknowledged by Austria in 1742, and that ought to have been that for him, but he re-entered what had by now become a wider war, with theatres in northern Italy and the Austian Netherlands (Belgium), in order to assure himself a place at the table when peace was eventually hammered out. That way, his claim to Silesia would be recognized by everyone.

Fashionable or not, Reed Browning writes my cup of history.


A cute wedding story: Will was one of two ringbearers at his uncle Brendon’s wedding on Saturday. The other ringbearer was even younger than Will, not quite two-and-a-half. It was decided, at the rehearsal, that each ringerbearer would be walked down the aisle by a flower girl (or junior bridesmaid), of whom there were two, aged seven or eight. At the wedding itself, however, the younger ringbearer’s mother decided, probably with reason, that she would walk her little boy down the aisle. As a result, Will followed, holding hands with both flower girls. I haven’t seen pictures yet, but I’m told that he quite liked this arrangement, news which comes as no surprise. He made his parents very proud, and we’re as proud of them.

Gotham Diary:
Rudulent Funbags
25 September 2012

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Instead of getting down to work this morning, I thought that I should take a walk, and pay a visit to Carl Schurz Park at an unaccustomed hour. I would take advantage of the sun’s position to give a number of familiar views a different look. After crossing York Avenue, I got out the camera, to take a picture of a doorman hosing down the sidewalk — and learned, as I had just moments before feared, that I ought to have changed the battery before leaving the apartment. I retraced my steps without too much complaint and was in the Park about twenty minutes later than I should have been. I ran two errands on the walk home. Bushed by this modest exercise, I sank into my reading chair and devoured Nicholas Lemann’s thoughts about Mitt Romney. My blood ran cold as I remember Lemann’s prediction, made in the same pages (The New Yorker) twelve years ago at just about this point in the election cycle, that George W Bush would win in November. I scoured the new piece for any evidence of a similar forecast about his subject — happily, in vain. Then I made a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich. Here I am.


Among the many interesting pieces in the current New York Review of Books that I wolfed down over the weekend, the one that kept me thinking was Jonathan Friedman’s commentary on Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream?According to Friedman, Smith posits a conspiracy of economists, executives, lobbyists, and other persons of means as the force that steered the United States into its current backwater of income disparity (and associated political inequality), but does not actually demonstrate its existence. I myself am not inclined to believe in conspiracies — not where large numbers of participants and issues are concerned. There is no way that anyone could have planned the nation’s move toward rentier capitalism; what’s far more likely to have happened — and this is not inconsistent with Smith’s argument — is cascading opportunities that were launched by a few policy changes (in the deregulatory direction) were seized by hundreds if not thousands of businessmen, inspired by free-market economists and equipped with lobbyists who fed their successes back into the legislative loop. With a restored conservative judiciate (the norm in American history), property rights took preference over personal (humanitarian) rights, and the vicious cycle became steadily more vicious. There was no need for a conspiracy; opportunists responding to momentary conditions were far abler to effect the revolution. It helped that most of the Americans who did not take part in this overhaul also had (and have) little or no interest in business. These other Americans think not of business but of something that businessmen would rather not think about: jobs.

(The purest capitalist is the businessman who employs no one. This — and not industrial or any other kind of production — is the core principle of capitalism.)

Friedman says something else that’s very itchy.

(Moreover, Smith’s view that these and similar actions at many other companies were a way of systematically favoring shareholders over workers needs to confront the fact that, for American business as a whole, the past fifteen years have been a period of exceptionally poor retunrs on common stocks…)

No, it doesn’t! When wheelers and dealers talk of “shareholder value,” they really mean precisely the opposite: sharedumper value. Dividends are of no account; it’s flipping stocks that provides the payout. Private equity firms infest a company, saddle it with debt, prune its operations, and sell off what’s left to a bunch of suckers. That’s when they realize their “shareholder value.” As Joe Nocera puts it in today’s Times, “The candidate [Romney] and the nation’s richest share a fondness for capital gains.” Capital gains accrue when investments are liquidated, when stocks are sold. Sayonara time. Every time you see “shareholder value,” read “platinum parachute.”


A massive pile of ironing awaited. And awaited. It was massive in the middle of August, before I left for Fire Island. I grabbed the unpressed handkerchiefs and packed them for the month. The pile grew more massive upon return. The closet door would no longer close. We ran out of napkins.

Two books arrived today, the new Pankaj Mishra and the new Zadie Smith. I was sinking my teeth into the former when a pang of guilt ruined my appetite. I really ought not to be sitting reading. I ought to be ironing. I had, I estimated, just enough energy. For a treat, I would watch Miranda, the second season.

It was important to ascertain which episode is the “Are we?” episode. Stevie develops a tic of making her inquisitiveness even more annoying by tacking “are we?” onto every question. “Off to have lunch with Tamara, are we?” The climax comes when Stevie shows up at Gary’s restaurant in a rather youthful top and skirt, and Miranda has her revenge: “Mutton dressed as lamb, are we?” It’s Episode 10, and I won’t forget that in future because “Tamara” and “are we” have a sort of rhyme. Episode 10 ends with the appalling revelation that Gary married Tamara in Hong Kong (Episode 7), so that she could get a green card. I didn’t know that they had green cards in Britain — that their green cards are actually green. I wonder if that’s true. Anyway, it’s a true marriage of inconvenience. Plus you can go to jail, although that’s not what happens to Gary, thank heaven.

Kathleen wondered if there will be a third season of Miranda. I’m inclined to think that there needn’t be. Like the lovers on Keats’s grecian urn, Gary and Miranda will remain in their technically unconsummated relationship for all time. Miranda Hart will go on to something else (as indeed she already has done, with Call the Midwife). But it’s hard to imagine that any role will ever suit Patricia Hodge more deliciously.

Because I saw no videos — movies, TV, or anything else — while I was on my seaside vacation, it was such fun! to get back to the rudulent funbags of Miranda. And I was delivered of much ironing.  

Gotham Diary:
Niente, cont’d
24 September 2012

Monday, September 24th, 2012

A souvenir of Fire Island 2012: the night before we left, we had dinner at Maguire’s, in Ocean Beach, where preparations were underway for a wedding the following afternoon. The flowers had already arrived — in their little Fire Island wagons. I’ve been thinking, ever since the last few days of vacation, that a wagon would be handy in town. Not one of these miniature numbers, but a real kid’s wagon. But you can be sure that I’m not going to buy one until I know exactly where I’m going to store it.


That’s what the weekend was all about: finding places for things. Or not, as in the case of the “Alice” china, a Laura Ashley pattern that served as everyday tableware at our country house. I’ve been edging it toward donation to Goodwill for years. The balcony allowed me to postpone the act; I buried it in the base of the hutch out there. Now the hutch itself is gone, and so will the Alice be, by about lunchtime today. There were two mugs and a very pretty (but very vernacular) old Sunsweet prune juice bottle that were dear to Kathleen; I persuaded her to keep them at the office for the duration. That leaves me with a stack of Fiesta plates in different colors; two broken candlesticks that I’d like to take over to Glass Restorations in case something can be done with them; an espresso cup and saucer from the Café de Flore (I actually envisioned having these turned into a bijou lamp, which was funny and decisive — never!); four oversized chargers from Tiffany, two in cobalt and two in a mottled turquoise that goes with nothing in our china cabinet, into which, by the way, the chargers are too large to fit; and a spongeware tankard that I used to drink tea from before upgrading to Fitzhugh. Oh, and the oil lamp.

The oil lamp is a French number in the Grecian style from, I should say, the early days of the Third Republic. I don’t know what the metal is — Ray could tell me, when he gets here to wash the windows — but the oil well is very heavy crystal. My mother bought it as an accent piece for her coffee table, and it looked pretty cool with the very contemporary straight-sided chimney that she found for it. That broke, of course, not long after I came into possession. I had a shade made at Oriental Lampshade; it was a silly idea, but one that taught me how welcome electric light must have been. I think that it is time to let the oil lamp go. I suppose I’ll have to clean it up a bit first, and discard the (unscented) oil in the well.

I forgot the four Venetian glass goblets, more inherited loot. There are eight altogether, and the other four are tucked into the sideboard. They’re not goblets really but more like octagonal dessert bowls, mounted on very long, thin stems that scream “fragile!” I don’t use them often, but I do like them, and they make custards and mousses taste twice as special (which is different from “twice as delicious,” an impossibility). I really do not know what I am going to do with the four goblets.

These objects cover, without crowding, about a quarter of the dining table. They do not appear to amount to a lot of stuff. Once upon a time, I’d have pushed them under a sofa, but those days are over: things must now be stored appropriately. And there is no appropriate storage room for them in the apartment, not unless I get rid of other things. Nor do I see the point in lugging them down to the storage unit. (The Venetian goblets, maybe.) In round after round, over the weekend, the other items on the table (covering it completely on Friday) have moved on, one way or the other. The remainder has me stumped — but only at the moment. By the end of the week, at the very latest, it will have moved on, too.

Ray Soleil has just called from 86th And Lex. Will he manage to wash the windows before the gargoyles flap in to bolt the balcony door shut? There’s no end to the excitement around here these days.


Yes, he did. Ray also tucked the Venetian goblets, all eight of them, behind the coping atop the bookcase, where they’re visible only to extreme paranoics. Please remember that, in case I forget.

Gotham Diary:
21 September 2012

Friday, September 21st, 2012

The best thing about it all, aside from its having taken very little time to deal with, was that I didn’t see it coming. Somehow, I nursed the fancy that we wouldn’t have to think about the building’s balcony upgrade project until next spring. Happily, I really didn’t have to think about it until after I’d had a month’s rest by the sea. Ray Soleil worked like a Stakhanovite, but I made countless necessary decisions with a clear head, such as I hadn’t had when I left town a month ago.

But I’m in shock this morning, and have nothing to say — really nothing, except to offer thanks that the weekend is upon us and to hope for continued quiet. I thought about going to the movies; there are at least three interesting films showing right here in the neighborhood. But I don’t think I could take the excitement. The evacuation of the balcony was hardly a white-knuckle challenge, but it was a steeplechase, with a series of hurdles any one of which might have tripped us. No longer required to brace for the next jump, my arms jerk with suppressed trauma.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
20 September 2012

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

It was my intention to return to yesterday’s entry, with a few words about Reed Browning, a historian whom I’ve just discovered, and whose War of the Austrian Succession is one of the most impressive and at the same time delicious histories that I’ve read in a long time. A glance at the photograph will suggest to regular readers what happened instead.

Less than six months ago, scaffolding went up around our apartment building, and presently the management announced that balcony railings would be replaced. The project was slated to take two years, weather permitting. Tenants would be required to remove all possessions from the balconies. We assumed that we would be given a week’s notice — I don’t know why. I think that we were beguiled by the statement that the work would begin on the front and rear façades. We’re on one side. We figured that we wouldn’t have to do anything until the baloncies on the front and rear had been repaired. But, no. Notice came yesterday in the form of a mild-spoken Latino man who stepped off a gondola onto our very furnished balcony and tapped on the door. I happened to be reading inside. He said something about my having to clear off the balcony. I said something about not being well enough to do it. I also said something (in an even tone) about calling my lawyer. He stepped back into the gondola and, with his coworker, disappeared. I called my lawyer — Kathleen.

Ray Soleil arrived within the hour, and we never got over how quickly we managed the better part of the evacuation. In four hours, we had the balcony looking as it does here. Aside from three chairs (two metal, one wicker), and three small metal-and-glass tables, the furniture not shown in the photograph was discarded — Ray hauled it down to the service elevator, whence emerged eventually a handyman in search of emolument. (I tipped him $50.) Loads of old junk was tossed down the garbage chute. The dining table, never bare for long these days, was soon covered with glass and china from the hutch, and plates stacked on the stove made fixing dinner a one-pot-at-a-time affair. (Good thing Kathleen was in Maryland.) I had hoped to disassemble the bench, but the screws were buried beneath those cunnning little wood-like plugs that I don’t know how to remove.

After lunch, we bought some sturdy book boxes at Big John’s Moving and Storage, over on 83rd and First. I packed four boxes this morning, and the “bricks” (they’re actually plastic, and half as thick as an actual brick — and heaven to walk on, especially as compared to concrete) will fill a few more. Ray will come up in the afternoon and help me take a few boxes to storage. The guy who did a few moving jobs for a us a few years ago has moved on, it seems; his phone number is not in service and he doesn’t answer emails.


Last night, after a dish of spaghetti alla carbonara, I watched The City of Your Final Destination, and had a very hard time letting go of what might have been had the leads been properly cast. As made, it’s a good picture — it’s just not what Peter Cameron wrote. The story is more or less the same, but Cameron’s book is about its characters. Catherine Gund is a French adn feeline, alluring and remote at the same time. She is not the somewhat harsh American beauty played by Laura Linney. Arden Langdon, a former child star, is a composed and serene beauty, grateful to be able to bring up her daughter in a safe and quiet place. After a childhood in rural Wisconsin she was shipped off to London, where she might have acquired Charlotte Gainsbourg’s accent (even softer than her mother’s), but not Ms Gainsbourg’s jumpy uncertainty and somewhat mousy self-effacement. Deirdre MacArthur is a braying American, all push and planning. Alexandra Maria Lara, who comes across as Marion Cotillard’s somewhat more reserved younger sister, makes Deirdre a much more appealing figure, but at the expense of the humor of Deirdre’s tone-deaf responses to the sophisticated ladies from whom her boyfriend (by now in a coma) has attempted to wrest authorization for a biography. The movie is, simply, something else.


Gotham Diary:
Pragmatic Sanction
19 September 2012

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

And there you have it: the tea table tucked away,  in its upright position, in a corner of the living room, absolutely out of the way. In a week or so, the motion of pulling it out and setting it up among the love seats will be automatic. We have just now enjoyed the second breakfast. Yesterday was so gloomy that I lighted a taper in a candlestick.  This morning, a glorious fall day, called for a small vase of flowers, and I was sorry that nothing suitable was growing out on the balcony.

Last night, after dinner, I wanted to watch Tamara Drewe, a comedy not without teeth that a good friend who is very reliable on the film front had recommended. But the setup in the bedroom wouldn’t work. That was the third unpleasant surprise since my return, and I hope the last. (The drying up of the ink cartridge was a problem only in that it prevented me from printing up checks immediately.) I continue to wash dishes placidly; Kathleen is trying to find a repair service. (Did I mention that Ray Soleil and I determined that the problem with the dishwasher is not in the plumbing but something involving a motor.) I watched Tamara Drewe in the living room, staying up late for a second night to do so.

Today there are plenty of errands. The plan was that, at about four, I would fetch Will at school to take him to the barber for a trim: he’s going to be a ringbearer in a wedding in California this weekend. His uncle Brendon is marrying a lovely girl from Orange County. (By the time Will gets back to New York, he’ll have traveled many miles this year.) But the haircut can wait — the last one was so great that he still looks good. It turns out that Will’s mother has a date with a high-school friend who lives in the city, and their two little boys are going to play in the park after school. It’s a reprieve of sorts for me, because I’m still coming out from under (piles of disorderliness have been fought back to two rooms; the living room has been liberated), and Kathleen will be in Alexandria tonight, at one of her Pooh-Bah meetings (if I told you what it was, you’d think I was showing off).

Gotham Diary:
After Breakfast
18 September 2012

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

All my life, I have wanted a tilt-top tea table. We’ll look into why it took so long to acquire one some other time. I’m no longer much interested in the whys and wherefores, because now, I’ve got one. It is a fine example of Colonial Revival, one for which I doubt that there is a period prototype. The octagonal tray top is so jolly and Edwardian that I almost feel that Mr Henry James is about to walk into the room. If I were expecting him, of course, I’d have the silver out. This was just our usual breakfast, glorified by an improved setting. In a few minutes, I’ll remove the clutter to the kitchen, tip the top into into its vertical position, and slip the table into the corner. Kathleen, who found the very sturdy table at eBay, exclaimed with delight when she came in to have her tea and toast.


I can’t remember quite when it hit me, but it was early on: Ian McEwan is writing a Ruth Rendell novel. Now, it happens that I am reading a Ruth Rendell novel, an old one (1987), on my Kindle — Talking to Strange Men. But, even if I hadn’t, I’d have caught the tone at once. It is a flat, artless style, capturing the vernacular cadences of intelligent, at least halfway-educated speakers who don’t, however, give much thought to what they say. Sentences are straightforward, unencumbered by independent clauses, but sprinkled with colorful phrases of the greatest conventionality. A certain tension arises from the incongruity of what the narrator knows and what the novelist is telling you between the lines. One of the hallmarks of this manner of writing is a persistent underestimation of threats and dangers, very typical of real life but hardly so of thrilling fiction. The banality of the storytelling undergirds an increasingly massive irony. Here is Rendell’s John Creasey, the hero — one wants, in anticipation, to call him the victim — of Talking to Strange Men.

John knew she didn’t much care about houses and furniture, that sort of thing, but she must surely notice the improved look of the place, the clean covers, the new lamp. And the garden, even she who had been indifferent couldn’t fail to admire the garden. The wisteria that covered the front bay was out, long mauve tassels draping the window panes, the patch of lawn was cut to the precise length of one inch and the edges trimmed, and among the last of the Siberian wallflowers the first pansies were coming out. On an impulse he bought a big plaster tub back from Trowbridge’s and, though this was the kind of cheating he had formerly despised, filled it with geraniums and begonias that were already in bloom. It seemed to him that he kept on doing things he would not have done in the past, that his whole nature was changing.

That’s as far as I’ve got, but I’m dead certain that John’s estranged wife, who wants a divorce, is not going to be moved one way or the other by the the blandishments of John’s house and garden. The passage is heavily marked by the fingerprints of John’s wishful thinking.

For a long time, I wondered what more there might be to Sweet Tooth than the exercise of imitating Ruth Rendell. It was not until the very end that I found out, and I must say that it made for an extremely satisfying wrap-up. The heroine, right up to the last, seems destined for a sorry victimhood, but we know that she must come out alive, because she tells the story herself, looking back over many years to her callow youth. Regular readers will recall my general disapproval of first-person narration; in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the writer’s very skill will make the narrator sound implausibly fluent. I doubt that any writer alive is more aware of this pitfall than Ian McEwan, and I can well imagine the serious excitement with which he took on the challenge of impersonating a twenty-something bishop’s daughter recruited by MI5. The act of impersonation is highlighted by the elementally potent gender switch: we can’t help being aware that McEwan has never been a pretty blonde girl in a miniskirt. Never once, however, does he slip; we never once feel his breath, his rich and complex intelligence, in her voice. She is a perfect fictional creation.   

The only other thing that I’ll mention at this early stage (the book will be published in the US in early November — although why any McEwan fan would wait, costs aside, I can’t imagine), is that Sweet Tooth comprises the plot summaries of three short stories by a promising writer with whom the heroine falls in love. Now, the very foundation of this tale is that the heroine is a compulsive consumer of novels who has, however, never been educated to read them: instead of studying literature at Cambridge, she was railroaded into exploiting a natural aptitude for maths. She jokes that, as a schoolgirl, she liked to shock friends by claiming that Jacqueline Susann was the equal of Jane Austen, but this is not really a joke.

I kept up the reading in the same old style, three or four books a week. That year it was mostly modern stuff in paperbacks I bought from charity and second-hand shops in the High Street or, when I thought I could afford it, from Compendium near Camden Lock. I went at things in my usual hungry way, and there was an element of boredom, too, which I was trying to keep at bay, and not succeeding. Anyone watching me might have thought I was consulting a reference book, I turned the pages so fast. And I suppose I was, in my mindless way, looking for a something, version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favourite old shoes. Or a wild silk blouse. For it was my best self I wanted, not the girl hunched in the evening in her junk-shop chair over a cracked-spine paperback, but a fast young woman pulling open the passenger door of a sports car, leaning over to receive her lover’s kiss, speeding towards a rural hideout.

(Serena has been that fast young woman and has had that lover. She wants novels to create the illusion that she still does.) What makes the plot summaries fascinating, more interesting that the stories that we don’t get to read ourselves, is the ruthlessness with which plot points are grasped and stated. There is no appreciation of the promising novelist’s literary style, nor even any indication that he has one. Sweet Tooth is a novel “by” as well as about the sort of reader upon whom Ian McEwan’s artistry is altogether wasted. The novelist’s success at concealing his artistry behind Sweet Tooth‘s bland surface, increasingly palpable as the book goes on, is far more thrilling than any amount of espionage.  

Gotham Diary:
Ray Soleil
17 September 2012

Monday, September 17th, 2012

Rescuing a day that begins with the discovery that the dishwasher is on the fritz (and that the problem isn’t in the plumbing) is uphill work, but I was lucky to have the adroit assistance of Ray Soleil, shown here in front of his handiwork, the beautiful paint job on the mantel and bookshelf, which I will enjoy long, long, long after the dishwasher woes are forgotten. (Well, never forgotten.) The dish in the center, behind the Doulton figurine, was the wedding present that Ray and Fossil Darling gave us thirty-one years ago next month.  


It’s dinnertime. I haven’t had the chance to sit down until now, what with the dishwasher, the ink cartridge that wouldn’t print the checks with which to pay the bills, a penitential sojourn at the local Staples (no air-conditioning and impossible music), a long lunch, a bit of furniture moving, tea (on a tea table at last!), a haircut, and a quick visit to Agata & Valentina and the liquor store. Also: finishing the new Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth. I’ll write about that tomorrow. I read almost all of it yesterday, after a jolly brunch with Will and his parents. I would put down the book every now and then, to refresh my mug of tea and to impose a bit of order here and there in the apartment. There are piles of things everywhere, and I still haven’t unpacked a couple of bags from Fire Island, because I want to write down what’s in them (kitchen equipment) and what ought to have been in them. This list will go into a folder that I will slip into the Christmas box, because that’s where things that happen once a year are memorialized. Another job for tomorrow.

I thought, for a while this morning, that the benefits of my month on Fire Island were going to be undone. It wasn’t just the dishwasher’s being on the fritz, although that did make it difficult to prioritize. (Another job for tomorrow: trying to find the receipts from the last repairs, several years ago. The dishwasher is ours, and the building’s handymen won’t be able to fix it.) I needed a haircut, I needed to pay the bills — well, see above. Kathleen was very good about helping me to keep calm, and I came to believe that a couple of days of sorting out the immediate junk will make it possible for me to get to work on real projects. By the time I went out to Fire Island a month ago, my nervous system was a hairball of household Sisyphoolery. I had just about completely lost the knack of taking care of the house without stepping into the quicksand of drudgery. I wish that there were an intelligent and intelligible way to write about this problem, but I haven’t found it yet. It’s very personal, and yet everything that I say about it has the clang of a self-help book. It’s a matter of rhythm and balance, not of checklists. Writing is a matter of rhythm and balance, too, but I don’t break down as a writer nearly as often as I fail as a housekeeper. The whole trick of housekeeping is to do what servants used to do, but without feeling like one.

If Kathleen and I are going to have dinner on the dining table, I’ve got a bit of clearing up to do, so I’d better get to that.

Gotham Diary:
14 August 2012

Friday, September 14th, 2012

We have a day of moderate bustle ahead of us, Kathleen and I. We’ve got to connect with the freight boat at noon, to despatch Will’s bicycle to the Bay Shore terminal, where we’ll pick it up tomorrow. (The rule against bicycles on the regular ferry is absolute.) We have another box to send from the post office. And we have to tidy up the house and pack our bags. Then, the last walk on the beach, and dinner at Magowan’s. I hope to be up and out early tomorrow. It’s not that I’m keen to leave, not at all. But I’m treating today as our last day here, and tomorrow as our first day home. My first day, that is.


After lunch, yesterday, we took a walk through Seaview, the community just beyond the other end of Ocean Beach, and Kathleen picked up a Times on the way. When we got back to the house, she read the first two sections and decided that she needed a nap. I had been reading the three back sections (Home, Styles, and Arts), and now I read the first two. Then I pulled over the extra-large tote bag full of newspapers that piled up during the month. During the month, I never bought a paper myself. Nor could I bear to read one. It was like television: coming back after a few days away, all you can see is the formula. So I would gather up the sections that drifted around the house over the weekends and stuff them into the tote bag. (Kathleen ususally went to buy a paper every morning that she was here, as well.) When I was finished with yesterday’s Times, I had a decision to make. Would I throw the old newspapers into the rubbish without reading them?

I glanced through the lot. I cut out an article on genetic swtiching, to read later. I read the piece about actor’s B D Wong’s new home, with the sad story, tucked into the chitchat about décor, of the death of a son and the fatal strain that it put on the relationship with his then partner. (Kathleen and I saw M Butterfly twice on Broadway.) The interenational and political news seemed a bit clueless, because it was, of course, unaware of recent events in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. (What’s appalling about the American response is that the violence of the reformation of Western Christianity has been entirely forgotten, as if we were not its heirs. But it is in the nature of heirs to obliviate the rude sources of their wealth.) The presidential campaign looked stranger than ever — it has lost the fundamental symmetry of traditional campaigns. Even when they attack the other’s positions, the candidates are not fighting the same kind of fight. Obama is appealing to reason, and Romney is appealing to something else — everything else, perhaps. Obama has to fight; Romney comes pre-sold, like a messiah-in-a-box, all shiny beneath the cellophane wrapping. Much more valuable if you don’t open it!  

Here’s something that I think has changed. Formerly, Americans could be whipped frantic by allegations of alien agents within our midst. This is ancient history, not just American, although in the Salem witch trials we see how little time was required to reproduce Old-World anxieties upon our own hopeful shores. Most recently, the Cold War was funded by a visceral (and very ignorant) fear of Communists, who could be anybody, when in fact the actual enemies were the Russians. But things are different now. Fear has been replaced by resentment. Americans aren’t afraid of infiltrators. They’re frankly willing to recognize that the people whom they resent and dislike are also Americans. They just don’t want to have anything to do with them. It’s not civil war, but the opposite: civil withdrawal. 

When it was over, the reading of the papers, I felt defeated. The smartest people in the country have no idea where we’re going, and no very clear notion of where we ought to be going. Jobs! Equality! Health care! But the nuts don’t fit the bolts. I saw a headline, which was not news to me, that most of the jobs that are being created these days are low-paying jobs. How do you tackle a problem like this? Training! is the answer. But training for what? How can there be growth in good jobs in a business climate that promotes productivity at the expense of employment? The answers aren’t there, because no one is asking the right questions.

That’s what I’d like to see: an election of questions. What do you think the right questions are?


I’ll be back on Monday. Bon weekend â tous!  

Gotham Diary:
Vacation, cont’d
13 September 2012

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

On Tuesday, I had so much fun doing nothing but reading Maria Semple that, like Will, I wanted “again.” After I’d taken the boxes to the post office (easy-peasy), I had really nothing to do, or, rather, nothing to feel guilty about not doing. But what to read? I knocked off Eric Evans’s Lancaster Pamphlet about Pitt the Younger; although richly informative, it left me even more mystified by the precocity of Pitt’s political mentality, which enabled him to become Britain’s youngest prime minister ever. I considered John Lewis Gaddis’s book about George Kennan, which I’ve been slogging through since it came out ages ago, but I’ve half resolved to put that book down, as a sweet-faced hatchet job. Kennan is always weeping or moaning or having a breakdown or in some other way exhibiting unmanly behavior. The emphasis seems tendentious. The writing is also very dull. By design, I quite suspect.

I consulted with Ms NOLA, who recommended a few titles that, while they didn’t make me jump, I really should have bought had they been available as ebooks. (Among them, Javier Marías’s All Souls, which takes place at Oxford.) In the end, here’s what I did: I went to Amazon and selected Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, which I’ve read twice. Then I scrolled down to the horizontal band of books bought by people who bought The Keep. The authors of these books fell into three groups: the ones I’ve read (Ishiguro), the ones I would never read (Roth), and the ones I didn’t know anything about (Megan Abbott). Swinging through the Amazon on these vines, I eventually settled on Peter Cameron’s The City of Your Final Destination, a book that I knew that I owned in paper, but somehow hadn’t read.

It was a great treat, and I look forward (already) to reading it again someday. I was about to remark on Cameron’s lapidary style, but I was attacked by a doubt that lapidary might not be quite the word. Weighing and considering the online dictionary definitions, I realized that I was drawn to the word by its reminder of “lapping.” Cameron’s understated prose is beautifully cadenced, something that F L Lucas’s Style has taught me to appreciate more overtly. Although it never openly scans (breaks down, that is, into a classical meter, such as iambic pentameter), the following passage pulses, beneath its quite ordinary words, with the gathering excitement of an unexpected encounter.

The second intermission found them leaning against the Dress Circle balustrade, looking down upon the crowded Grand Tier promenade, discussing the sexual politics of trouser roles. There was an area below them separated off with a row of potted trees, beyond which people sat on conspicuous display at little tables idiotically eating desserts. Deirdre was about to make a comment about the absurd ostentation of this, when she thought she recognized a woman seated at one of the tables.

“…looking down upon the crowded Grand Tier promenade..”; “…beyond which people sat on conspicuous display…” — oh, for Lucas’s markings, which I don’t know how to reproduce on this machine. But when Deirdre speaks, the rhythm evaporates.

“I think I know that woman down there,” she said. “I want to go and say hello. Will you excuse me?”

“Sure,” said her companion. “I’m going to the men’s room. I’ll meet you back at our seats.”

“Okay,” said Deirdre. 

The woman is, as the reader fully expects, Caroline Gund, the French-born widow of an author about whom Deirdre’s former boyfriend, Omar Razaghi, once hoped to write an authorized biography. Deirdre met Caroline at her then home, Ochos Rios, in rural Uruguay, a place that she shared with her late husband’s brother (and his boyfriend) and mistress (and her daughter). Most of the novel takes place at that house, and its charms (and delapidations) are winkingly described, giving the place a charming but dreamlike uncertainty. From the moment she arrives at the house, summoned by Omar’s catastrophic reaction to a bee sting, Deirdre is not just a character but also a verbal bloc of antipathy to not just the irregularities but also the poetic possibilities of life at Ochos Rios. Whether or not she raises her voice, she is the prototypical braying American, and you can’t wait for her to leave the room. By the time you catch up with her at the opera, you might be ready to forgive her. But then she says that word that Caroline, very much the mistress of her second language, would never use, “okay.” Ladies don’t say “okay” at the opera. They don’t even think it. 

“Razaghi” may be an actual Iranian surname, but I kept reading it as ragazzo, Italian for “boy,” which Omar completely is, 100%. Until he goes to Ochos Rios, that is.


Kathleen is in a black car (perhaps it is silver), speeding along the Grand Central Parkway I should think, on her way to 99 Maple Avenue, in Bay Shore, a destination that the drivers seem to have trouble finding. Kathleen is no help. I still recall the first time I drove her home from law school. To the house that she was sharing with four other classmates, not far from campus and technically a part of it. “Which way?” I asked her, at a turn. Kathleen had no idea. She would get in someone’s car and be taken to and from Douglas House, paying absolutely no attention to the route. But of course I already knew where she lived. You may be sure of that. In case of difficulty today, I’ll have Google Maps up and ready.  

Gotham Diary:
12 September 2012

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

It is now a week since anyone but Kathleen was here at our rented house on Fire Island (and even Kathleen herself is away at the moment), but it feels more like a month. The days pass quickly enough, but, having receded into the past, they double or triple in bulk, so that two or three fill up the memory-space of a week. The other odd thing is that what looked like an alarmingly bare larder as recently as Sunday now seems stuffed with food that we’ll never get through. What happened, I think, is that my everyday expectation of culinary quality and variety gave way to something much less demanding. Last night, I found a burger in the freezer and broiled it. It wasn’t beef, or just beef, but some sort of meat-loaf mix — very odd, when that’s what we had for dinner the Friday night of Labor Day weekend. I cooked a slice of bacon and found a remnant of cheddar cheese for the topper. What with macaroni salad from the Pantry on the side, I did without an English muffin. It was a bland dinner, but it filled me up, and that was that; also, one less thing to throw away. That’s what it’s come down to: a timeless, Magic Mountain zone in which I’m eating prospective refuse. Although I’m perfectly comfortable, I’m glad that I have only one more day of this.

I really did feel that I was resting at some old-timey sanatorium yesterday morning. It was so chilly that I sat in the sun the moment the light hit the deck. I sat with my back to it, wearing a hat and a heavy cardigan and a blanket over my legs. I sipped tea and watched the monarch butterflies. Without really trying, I must have seen more than a dozen yesterday. They are migrating through here, on their way to Mexico. We have learned some interesting things about monarch butterflies. The lifespan of those born at the beginning of summer is less than two months, but the “migratory generation” can live for up to seven. No butterfly lives to make a complete round trip, so the migratory pattern is entirely inborn — or at any rate it is not well understood. Until this week, spotting a monarch has always been something of an event (not that I would ever see one if attention were not called to it by someone else), but yesterday, I might look up from my book and see three or four fluttering in crazy assembly across the rushes. The traffic promises to be even heavier today.  

Whether I’ll be sitting out in the sun again remains to be seen. I have some boxes to take to the post office, one full of Will’s toys and the other packed with books. Also, I don’t have anything to read.


Of course, it hasn’t come to that. But I’m left with stuff that I won’t be reading in big doses. There’s Bendetta Craveri’s book about Mme du Deffand, the great hostess of Enlightenment Paris; rather than begin at the beginning (as usual), I’ve jumped to the chapter about Deffand’s strange romance with, of all people, Horace Walpole. Never have I read so satisfying a portrait of the English aristocrat; everything that Craveri writes confirms something or other that I’ve read about him over the years, and puts it in relation to the other bits. It would be wrong to say that the first prime minister’s second son has been a model to me, but I believe that we share a fastidious resistance to the mental deformities that accompany professionalism. (The serious professional cannot talk about what he or she does, because it is either abstruse or confidential or both.)

Les deux créations auxquelles il consacre pendant un demi-siècle ses soins les plus attentifs, son immense correspondance et sa demeure-musée de Strawberry Hill, sont, à cet égard, significatives, car ce sont deux activités  parfaitement compatible avec la condition de gentilhomme. Face  aux affaires publiques, l’attitude de Walpole est celle de quelqu’un qui a l’habitude de la politique et qui n’en a pas la passion.

That sounds familiar. A few pages of Creveri, however, are all that I can swallow, largely because of the excerpts from Deffand’s letters. They are models of lucidity and so forth, but that’s the problem: they’re models. In the Eighteenth Century, everyone with a brain strove to write model prose. You can’t tell writers apart in this, the most intimate of genres. The fault is mine, I’m sure; had I read more diligently in this literature, Mme du Deffand would not be reminding me (alarmingly!) of Mme de Merteuil.

Then there is a book on “Chinese” Morrison that I can’t bring myself to discuss; allow me a spell of mystification on that title. What’s distressing is this Timothy Mo book, An Insular Possession. I had never heard of Timothy Mo, before coming across his name in a list of authors recommended by Diana Athill. In my ignorance and lack of sympathy, I have to say that Mo reminds me of Patrick O’Brian, whose popular Jack Aubrey books I simply cannot read. Here is where I stopped last night (a group of American agents and sailors are shooting in the marshes near Whampoa Island):

A brisk walk of twenty inutes sees them back to their starting-point. The others cheer ironically. MacQuitty barks a welcome. He brings a soft, drooping mass of feathers and bill to them in his mouth and drops it at their feet. This is merely one of a brace; all told, the others have accounted for eight brace.

“A darnation fine morning’s sport,” one of the mates tells Eastman.

They have arranged their bag over the leaves on the upturned boat’s keel, the beautiful plumage set off to advantage against the brilliant green when glimpsed thorugh the latticed frame of the bamboos. A pair of guns lie crossed against the boat, completely the tastefully contrived tableau. Eastman’s fingers itch for what they manage best, neither gun not cue but … [sic] a pen or brush. Still life is actually what he realises most successfully, and, in this kind of accomplishment, does not suffer by comparison with O’Rourke, who regards it as a form of necrophilia, the objectionable object, nadir of artistic endeavour. (And has told Walter Eastman so.)

“You are doleful failures at either form of the ‘pot’,” says the odious Ridley.

If I cared anything at all for this, I would want to know what “pot” refers to, or what it is about Ridley that makes him odious, but I don’t. What has kept me going is the prospect of the Opium War, which looms somewhere over the novel’s remaining seven hundred pages. I can’t think how I’m going to get there.


I had saved Maria Semple’s new book, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, for a day like yesterday, when I’d be all alone and tired of my usual occupations. I thought that I just might read it in a day, but was really surprised to find that it took only a few hours to get from start to finish. The dust jacket carries a blurb from Jonathan Franzen: “I tore through this book with heedless pleasure.” Exactly. And the problem with heedless is pleasure is that, once you’ve gulped down the happy ending, you’re calling for the next dish.

At the risk of presumptiousness, I will say that neither Jonathan Franzen nor I is a reader capable of taking heedless pleasure in heedless writing about heedless characters. No, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a very well-constructed entertainment, full of vivid and interesting characters who thrash about in a poopy stew of contemporary pieties. The plot is an infernal machine that strains plausibility just enough to impel the turning of pages. The comedy depends upon the characters’ inability or unwillingness to develop. It isn’t personal growth that’s wanted, but something rather the reverse, a sound simplification, a “getting back to basics.” The Seattleites in Semple’s slice of life have overdosed on improving concepts, a disorder for which the only known detox program is the reading of a novel such as this one. In an important sense, Semple has updated Cyra McFadden’s 1978 assessment of the emperor’s new clothes, The Serial.

The villain of the piece here is bad writing, examples of which Semple artfully parades in the series of emails and announcements that constitute the bulk of the narrative. Every now and then, little Bee Branch, a straight-A eighth-grader, takes the floor, and everything that she says makes plain good sense, even when she insists that she hates her Dad (she doesn’t); but most of what we read is, well, heedless self-display, in the form of ill-considered, cant-ridden missives. Semple establishes the key at the very beginning, with the mission statement of Bee’s school: “a place where compassion, academics, and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet.” The gist would be better-served by something less glib, and certainly no reputable academy ought to dabble in “connectitude.”

The title character, Bee’s mom, reminds me of Amfortas, in Parsifal. In a youthful and heroic attempt to battle the forces of heedlessness, she was bested by an evil man, and she has been languishing with the wound ever since. You could say that she has been a great mom to Bee, but even there she might have been better, by providing her daughter with a more impervious roof overhead. Straight Gate, the hilltop former home for wayward girls that Bee calls home is nothing less than Bernadette’s wound made visible, and, in fact neither parent calls it home. Bernadette spends her days in an Airstream trailer behind the house, while Bee’s father, Elgin, heads a major development project at Microsoft and is usually on the Campus. (Elgin takes the company bus to work in order to save himself an hour of Bernadette’s morning rants about the impossibility of living in Seattle, something that, agoraphobe that she has become, she knows little about.) Bernadette, an architect with prestigious training and a MacArthur genius grant, meant to do something with the broken-down old house, but she has spent the entirety of Bee’s life, and then some, feeling sorry for herself and superior to everyone else — “everyone” consisting, in this case, of the mothers of the other children at Bee’s school. Bernadette dismisses these women as “gnats.” In the course of the novel, she is reminded that this is not a constructive view to take of fellow-creatures, but that’s precisely why you can’t speak of her finding wisdom in the ordinary sense. She knew it all along, but indulged in oversight. As for the two gnats with whom she clashes, they, too, have to recollect the sense they were born with.

My complaint is the best possible one: I wish that this book were longer, quite a bit longer. I’d like to have known a lot more about Elgin, whose background is fairly telegraphed, with a no-account brother making a surprising, disproportionate appearance (and quick disappearance). Bernadette’s Park Avenue background, too, come to think of it. To say that a lot of threads go untied at the end is an understatement; with its last-act shift to the waters off Antarctica (foreseen from the start), Where’d You Go, Bernadette casts off any concern for mundane tidiness. It seems to be a case of confusing the White Continent with “the basics.”

Ordinarily, of course, I’d tuck in a  slab of text, some more or less representative sample of Maria Semple’s prose style. But it’s not possible; Semple’s prose style (quite a lovely one, as you’ll recall from This One Is Mine) is completely effaced by her project, which is to capture a representative sample of the way we write badly today. No one specimen speaks for the whole. The sixth document in the collection, a mailing from a consultant who has been hired to help improve the prestige of Bee’s school, is a glorious monstrosity of dead cliché (cliché born dead, that is), but in its two pages, Semple says it all, and there’s no call for more. The best that I can do is to file a portion of Bee’s report on the Rockettes.

That night, I went to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular with Youth Group. The first part, with the Rockettes, was annoying. All it was, was piped-in music while the Rockettes kicked. I thought they would have at least sung, or done some other kind of dancing. But they just kicked in a line facing one direction. They kicked in a line facing the other direction. They kicked in a line with the whole line twirling, to songs like “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” The whole thing was junk. Kennedy and I both were like, Why?

I wouldn’t have asked for anything different. Just more of same. I hope that, next time, Maria Semple isn’t in a hurry to finish her novel.

Gotham Diary:
11 September August 2012

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

Is there anything less nautically charming than the Fire Island ferries? They are boxes on barges, built for passengers who won’t be paying much attention to the boat.

I don’t go in for photographic actualités much, but as it happens Kathleen is on the boat in the picture, or was — she is at home and in bed as I write. For the first time, I found myself altogether alone on Fire Island. I walked back to the house, and quickly changed into my beach togs. The tide was high, and my walk was often interrupted by knee-high sweeps of water. Showered and dressed afterward, I sat down with the rest of A Dedicated Man. Dinner consisted of reheated asparagus soup — Kathleen had bought a bunch of the sorries looking spears (“and those were the best”) that were good for nothing else — and the half of a BLT that Kathleen didn’t even attempt to eat just before she left the island — and a few loads of laundry went through the necessary stages. I spoke to Kathleen three times, I think, the last to say good-night. By then, I had read all the Elizabeth Taylor stories and had shifted to Timothy Mo’s historical novel, An Insular Possession.

It got very cold in the night. I ought to have grabbed one of the fleece comforters on the sofa much sooner than I did. For the first time, the ceiling fan was motionless overhead.


A Dedicated Man is a short collection; there are only nine stories, half as many (give or take) as in the two previous collections. They are varied and assured, all top quality. The second story, “The Little Girl,” has a wicked ending that is funny precisely because it confirms a mother’s fears that her daughter is going to grow up to be like an obstinate aunt (who married a millionaire). There are hints throughout the stories of William Maxwell’s lapidary little book, The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing and Other Tales — perhaps the first piece of not-entirely-realistic contemporary fiction that I could appreciate — and I’m more than ever of the opinion that Maxwell, Taylor’s editor at The New Yorker, was inspired by her submissions — but in “Mice and Birds and Boy” the hints gather a certain heft, as characters are cloaked in the familiar costumes of fairy tale. The little boy’s mother, for example, takes on the cast of the stock wicked stepmother. Notwithstanding her Italian lessons and her Japanese cooking, she is thoughtlessly selfish, and it’s telling that she doesn’t have a name. Mrs May, the sometime grand lady who has been reduced to living in a gardener’s lodge that she doesn’t keep very clean, turns out not to be the witch whom little William expects to find in so strange (and, for a while, enchanting) a little house. But these foundations, unexpected but familiar, support the timelessness not of old fables but that of the best adult fiction. There is the melancholy (seen from any standpoint but his own) of William’s transitory interest in Mrs May; as children grow up, they leave things behind, even people. There is the mystery of Mrs May’s evidently mismanaged fortune, which glistens with bits of evidence that, if she is a sweet old lady, it is only William who sees her as such, and not because children see more clearly than adults do but very much because they don’t. The entire story is haunted by the second paragraph.

“I was thought to be beautiful,” she said, and she wondered: “How long ago was that?” Who had been the last person to comment upon her beauty, and how many years ago? She thought that it might have been her husband, from loyalty or from still seeing what was no longer there. He had been dead for over twenty years and her beauty had not, by any means, been the burden of his dying words.

What a twist of the knife! What was the burden of his dying words? Something unpleasant? Perhaps it was the death duties that Mrs May mentions when she tries to explain to William why she is living in a hut. “These death duties William thought of as moral obligations upon dying — some charitable undertakings, plainly not approved of by Mrs May.” William may not be so far wrong as his ignorance of taxation suggests. William’s family inhabits the stables once attached to Mrs May’s property, and when Mrs May discovers this, she is dumbfounded, because, reduced to penury as she is, she nonetheless lives in a building constructed for human habitation, not for that of horses. This makes her a bore, because she cannot stop asking William about details of his home life that don’t interest him at all. Presently, William decides to obey his mother’s ban on visits to Mrs May. And what of William’s kind father? Again, he wears the mask of thr browbeaten good man. He is not, as for an instant it seems that he might be, the hero to rescue Mrs May. We are left thinking that something about Mrs May makes her ineligible for heroic rescue. “Mice and Birds and Boy” is a puzzle for adults, and, as such, meant not to be solved.

“A Nice Little Actress” is impossible to think of without smiling, even if the young man does shoot himself at the end. Somehow, that is part of the dark comedy. I am almost certain that Taylor did not mean this story to be a burlesque of Puccini’s Il Tabarro, but that’s what came to mind. Iris is a bored housewife, stuck in a cluster of wartime bungalows and agonized by the sound of cinema organs emanating from all the other little houses. Instead of listening to a soap opera, Iris lives one. “She was always playing little tricks and this was the first which had ever come off.” You can see how pathetic she is right there. She redoes her hair for the man on whom she has played the trick (a poor young musician lured into her living room by a photograph recording of the Archduke Trio) and her husband notices. “All right for a change,” he says, but he thinks that it looks “absurd, snaky and greasy.” The high point in the comedy is not an event but a sentence that reminds us that what is really going on when you read a story is that you are reading a story: which means that you are a character yourself, and your laugh, when you read the following, is the climax: “He had arrived at the stage now, the neighbors notes, when he entered the back door without knocking.” Iris is heedless and reckless, but because she is not, after all, living on a barge in the Seine amidst Latin lovers but rather immured in an exurb surrounded by noticing neighbors, her bad behavior has no consequences for her. There is not a single genuinely funny detail  in “A Nice Little Actress,” but, thanks to Taylor’s writing, I cannot for the life of me wipe the smirk off my face. If only Trollope had written The Eustace Diamonds like this!

I have to read “The Voices” to Kathleen, because something like it happened to me once, and is one of my great stories. Because of its Moroccan setting and dodgy English folk, “In the Sun” may remind you of The Man Who Knew Too Much, but so much the better if it does, because you won’t see the ending coming. (You probably wouldn’t anyway.) “Vron and Willie,” the last story, brought Edward Gorey to mind; it was very like one of his gaily limned chapbooks about jovial psychopaths. “As If I Should Care” and “Mr Wharton” are both about the other end of the middle class, the one that Taylor escaped by virtue of brains and charm, but never forgot that she might have dropped into. “As If I Should Care” actually dips into the upper reaches of the working class. When Taylor turns her sights in this direction, her sense of humor is replaced by a furious empathy. It is only in a novel, Angel, her extraordinary portrait of an ambitious writer of trash, that she finds room for both.


The treat that I’ve been saving for these few days of solitude is Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. It looks yummy.

Gotham Diary:
Serene and Oblivious
10 September 2012

Monday, September 10th, 2012

A picture of yesterday’s skies would interest no one. There was nothing to see but blue. At one point, a flotilla of small cumulus clouds, looking more like wallpaper for a nursery than anything else, crossed from north to south, but, for the most part, the sky was blank. It had completely forgotten the night before.

It would be all right with me if today were our last day out here. I’ve soaked up as much seaside peace as I can hold, and I’m beginning to feel the melancholy of autumn, which, in the city, is a burnished delight. Not so out here. The island is at its emptiest. Summer is absolutely over; the few hangers-on constitute an inverse of decimation. The winter life, in which about a hundred households participate with a frontier sociability, is not even imaginable at the moment.

For Kathleen, however, it is nothing less than heaven, and for all of these reasons, except for the melancholy, which touches her only in the form of a reminder that she will soon be going back to work. She will be going back to work, tomorrow; the combination of a conference and several unavoidable meetings will keep her busy for two days, and, because the ferry service has been cut back, she will have to leave this evening and wait until Thursday morning to return. Hell of a note! Why bother, I thought to myself; we have to be out of here first thing Saturday morning. But from Thursday morning to Saturday morning is the space of a slightfly curtailed weekend, which is generally thought to be worth the trip, and Kathleen hasn’t spend much more than a third of the time that I’ve had.. So I’ll stay here by myself. Anything is better (for me) than traveling. Being in other places is wonderful, but getting there is excruciating. (That’s why I’ve still never been to Williamsburgh.) I’ve made the most out of these restful weeks away from the city by staying put. I had the idea of ferrying across to Bay Shore for a haircut and a beard trim, but instead I’ve risked looking like the abominable snowman for the sake of ignoring logistics.


After washing up last night, I was casting about for something to read, and I thought that I would beguile a half hour with a story by Elizabeth Taylor. I opened up the fat omnibus to “The Dedicated Man,” the title story of her fourth collection. It is anything but beguiling. Closer to surrealism and alternative reality than anything by Taylor that I’ve read, it tells of an emotionally shut-down waiter who enlists a dependable coworker to pass as husband and wife in order to snag a position at a genteel restaurant in the Thames Valley. This odd deception works well enough until the waiter feels it necessary to allay suspicions by simulating the appearance of a genuinely marital chamber by putting out the photograph of a boy in a school blazer. Unfortunately, this photograph proves to be a portal, through which the waitress, his accomplice, travels into a better, if imaginary world.

A brilliant story, but unsettling, especially after dinner. For the first time, I did not hunger to read another story right away. I went to bed instead.

Gotham Diary:
9 September 2012

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

Yesterday — a Saturday, although there was nothing, in our otherwise happy solitude, to distinguish it from any other day — was a day of uncertainties. First, there was the uncertainty about food. Kathleen returned from the Pantry with two items out of six on the shopping list. It may be that the Pantry, although scheduled to be open for the remainder of our stay, has reverted to a sort of deli/convenience outlet, and won’t be stocking perishables. It’s not that we’re out of food here, but what food there is is too miscellaneous for the making of satisfying meals. I shall have to think. We shall probably go out.

Then, there was the uncertainty about the weather. Kathleen’s father and Fossil Darling both called with concern, having heard about the tornado that ripped through Breezy Point earlier in the day. That event was quite unrelated to the storm that was headed our way, expected to hit in the evening. The day was sultry but breezy; not too hot, but very humid. Or, should I say, low-pressured, since I felt it more in my joints than on my skin. As the evening gathered, so did the clouds. The wind picked up, and Kathleen decided to stow the lightweight deck chairs. I was in no mood for really bad weather — for the inconveniences of really bad weather, that is. There are very few tall trees out here to be blown through the power lines (that’s what knocks out service in the suburbs), but that’s small comfort when the weather sites on the Internet are blinking red.

I tried to read. Well, I did read. But I did not read from a treasured volume of my choice (to rough up a bit a line of Longellow, I think it was, that was engraved on some ghastly bronze bookends that were handed down to me when I was young). I have surprisingly, read most of the books that I brought out with me, and the ones remaining remain for a reason. No, I read newly-acquired books on my Kindle Fire. I’ve had the Kindle since it came out in December (January?), and I’ve used it now and then, but during this trip it has become a real tool. I’ve bought all sorts of old books for free. Did you know that Hume’s History of England is available? That’s amazing! And now I can get rid of six second-rate Victorian volumes in borderline poor condition. (I want to write an essay about Hume on Edward II.) I bought the Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague. Did you know — now, this I got from Wikipedia — that her father wanted her to marry someone by the name of Clotworthy Skeffington? Clotworthy Skeffington! This is a name that must be put to some excellent use! I bought a Lancaster Pamphlet on Pitt the Younger and read quite a bit of it. Did you know that Lancaster Pamphlets are aimed at British students studying for their A-Levels? I expect to build up a collection. All on my Kindle.

I had spent some of the afternoon reading Eleanor Cook’s book about Wallace Stevens’s poetry — another e-book, as was the collection of Stevens’s poetry itself that I’d finally had the wit to download. Eight months, it took me. It took me eight months to grasp that I can carry around my favorite poems without lugging around actual books. If someone had told me that I could do this when I got the Kindle, I’d have nodded, because I’d have understood the theory. But old beasts are slow to put theory into practice. When that finally happens, it is the brilliant mercy of a sure repose.  

Eventually, after dark, there was rain. I should say that, all in all, it rained off and on for a total of fifteen minutes, only half of that time tempestuously. By nine o’clock, the skies were unmistakably clearing. The pressure shot up, too. Suddenly, it was eleven o’clock, and I crept to bed.


The actual book that I read yesterday was George Snyder’s On Wings of Affection. George is one of the handful of very nice people whom I’ve met first on the Internet and then face-to-face. When he sent me a copy of his novel last winter, I resolved to read it straight away, but, to an extent never really revealed in these pages, last winter was difficult for a number of reasons (happily, the worst of these was Will’s expertise in germ warfare), and every time I opened Wings, I found it just a bit too light in tone for my frame of mind. It did not take too long for the novel to become a source of self-reproach, a development that makes any book twice as hard to read. In the end — for it did come to an end! — I packed the book for Fire Island and resolved to read it.

Once I got past the first couple of pages, I had no desire to stop. What’s my favorite book? The one that I’m in the middle of right now! So it was with On Wings of Affection. I was engrossed by George’s expert blend of inspiration: antics out of Patrick Dennis marinated in Hollywood noir and infused with with Christopher Isherwood’s metamorphosed regret. The novel is almost always funny, but it is also never not triste.

At his Web log, 1904: The Year Everything Important Happened, George had experimented with his three principal characters, Sam (the narrator), Pam, and Didier, but in the composition of the book he removed every trace of the tentative, and the sketches were replaced by firmly grounded people. (Reading 1904, hadn’t been quite sure that Didier was supposed to be real.) Sam Finch, nearing forty, grew up poor in Ohio, gave New York a try, and now finds himself as a script reader and researcher in West Hollywood. The sister of an old boyfriend, the fabulously wealthy Grace Van Loon, emerges out of the past to ask him to keep an eye on her headstrong daughter, sixteen year-old Agnes, who prefers to go by “Pam.” (It didn’t take long for me to sense that I had cast Rachel McAdams in the part.) But what gives new shape and meaning to Sam’s life is the appearance of the beautiful young Frenchman, Didier Rossingol.

Sam, Pam, and Didier constitute a kind of group lead. It is not what happens between them that keeps the story going, but their intersections with the craziness that is Southern California. Didier, when he makes his first appearance, is the boytoy of a loathsome, wealthy decorator whose death is foretold in the next breath. It turns out that Didier and Pam have some history: in his previous life, Didier was her father’s boytoy (Pam’s mother refers to her gay ex-husband as The Plaintiff), and there was a scandal in St Tropez. Pam’s attempt to defenestrate Didier from Sam’s apartment may forewarn some movie buffs of an impending romance, but never mind; the adventure begins when Didier discovers his protector’s corpse, panics, and runs.

Sam’s attempts to help Didier out are more than comically ineffectual; they take him to Chatsworth (the one on the other side of the hills) for the making of a porn flick. But if the plot keeps the wheels turning, it’s the rueful candor of the writing that makes the scenery interesting. Here is Sam, unexpectedly welcoming a very famous movie actor into his apartment.

I will say, however, that meeting someone you are quite sure you’ve met before but are distinctly aware of having seen more or less naked is a disconcerting experience. You cannot help wondering what you might have been doing when you did seem them naken, and in addition, if you have lived as full and rich a life as I have had, filled with many interesting experiences you can’t always recall afterward, you may have a nagging suspicion that this vivid memory of lack of clothes has to do with something for which you owe an apology, but for the life of you, you can’t remember for what (or when, or where), so all you can do is hope they don’t remember either.

Sam no longer leads this kind of life. The fun part of his life is behind him. At one point, he moons over the trio at the end of Der Rosenkavalier and prepares to give up Didier, but without ever having had him. Sam’s social life nowadays is made up of meetings of “our little social club,” the name of which seems to be the only thing anonymous here. Like one of Louis XIV’s cast-off mistresses, Sam has found religion, and, in his case, sobriety is just the start of it. Beneath the laughter, but never out of sight, lies Sam’s renunciation. The fun is all ours.  

Although I’m horribly embarrassed about having taken so long to read a friend’s book, I’m rather glad to have had On Wings of Affection as a holiday treat. I promise not to let so much time go by before reading the next “Sam, Pam and Didier adventure,” Down the Garden Path.

Gotham Diary:
No Problem
7 September 2012

Friday, September 7th, 2012

Have I already complained about “no problem” as a substitute for “you’re welcome”? Kathleen and I hate it. The otherwise very nice waiter at Magowan’s last night kept saying it. At first, I thought that it wasn’t so much the words as the intonation, which has a bit of Mighty Mouse about it, but that’s nonsense: it is the words. Why introduce the idea of difficulty (if only to deny it) into a response to gratitude? I hope that the vogue passes.


It was hard to get out of bed this morning, so I didn’t, not until nearly nine. Although still, the air was cool and pleasant, and the sky was a simple, lovely blue. Nothing was happening. Every now and then, a truck drove through the marsh on Burmah Road. (That’s the stretch of winding sand that we had to traverse, coming and going, when we stayed at Robbins Rest last summer. We can see that house from the deck of this one. It is very inconspicuous among the other rooftops.) There were birds, I suppose. The chirping of insects that might have been tinnitus. My resolve, to get up early and get to work, was utterly vitiated by the tranquillity of dozing next to Kathleen.

Insofar as I was bothered by actual thoughts, they mostly had to do with Orley Farm, which I finished last night. It seemed to me, this morning, that Trollope leaves most of his narratives up in the air. What sort of career does Felix Graham, so obviously not cut out to be a predatory cross-examiner, pursue? What becomes of Mrs Mason of Groby Park — does she die as meanly as she lived? Do the daughters marry well, or at all? Sophia Furnival, pursued by two suitors during the novel, is left high and dry, spurning one and spurned by the other. She is undoubtedly meant to be seen in the same light as the hunting Miss Tristrams: too something-or-other to be properly feminine. (Peregrine Orme says of Harriet Tristram, “I wouldn’t have her if she owned every fox-cover in the county.”) And what really happened to Dockwrath in the end? “What the attorney did to make it necessary that he should leave Hamworth, I do not know…” Piffle! The ending of this voluminous novel is so unfinished that I almost wish that it had ended with this (it is the end of Chapter LXXVII):

I am inclined to think, that upon the whole the company in Great St Helen’s became more happy as the conviction grew upon them that a great and mysterious crime had been committed, which had baffled two courts of law, and had ast last thrust itself forth into the open daylight through the workings of the criminal’s conscience. When Kantwise had completed his story, the time had come for Mrs Loulder to descend to the lower regions, and give some aid in preparation of the supper. During her absence the matter was discussed in every way, and on her return, when she was laden with good things, she found that all the party was contented except Moulder and her brother.

“It’s a very terrible thing,” said Mrs Smiley, later in the evening, as she sat with her steaming glass of rum and water before her. “Very terrible indeed; ain’t it, John? I do wish now I’d gone down and see’d her, I do indeed. Don’t you, Mrs Moulder?”

“If all this is true I should like to have had a peep at her.”

“At any rate we shall have pictures of her in all the papers.”

When I read Orley Farm the first time, I was in my late forties; this time, in my mid-sixties, I found myself in much greater sympathy with Sir Peregrine Orme. I could still see that his retired country life allowed him to persist in naive wishful thinking about his well-behaved neighbors, but I didn’t find him stuffy. No doubt I have become almost as stuffy myself.

It has been like spending the weekend at the country house of a beloved relative who happens to be a “character.” Frequent visits would be maddening, but, every once in a while, it’s very entertaining to drop in and watch the old man go on about things. Uncle Tony is droll (intentionally and otherwise); he is so opinionated that he seems to have opinions on matters about which he insists that no one ought to have an opinion; and he is a transcendant snob, an almost bigoted believer in the ennobling effects of gentle birth. He’s tremendously romantic about “Old England” — the hunt, Tudor architecture (rarely so labeled), the Inns of Court, and such rural inconveniences as make what is a very short walk from Orley Farm to The Cleeve a very long ride in a carriage. His ideas about nubile girls, while utterly consistent with the most rigorous moral precepts, seem almost pervertedly interested, and of course women have but one purpose in life, which is to take care of men. And he is always interrupting his stories with bald statements of his personal views. By Sunday afternoon, you’re packed and panting for a lift to the train back home. But you’ll be back.

I’d forgotten than stern, self-righteous Lucius Mason winds up in Australia. Perfect.

Gotham Diary:
Calming Down
6 September 2012

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

During the afternoon, yesterday, there were several points at which I wanted to go to bed. Going to bed in the middle of the day is unheard of for me, because nothing would wake me up faster, or less agreeably, than the attempt to take a proper nap. Made fretful by a slight domestic inconvenience (see below), I had the sense to take my walk on the beach despite my lassitude, and after that, if I had been alone, I’d have scrambled some eggs, taken a pill, and gone to bed by daylight. As it was, I could hardly think to make for dinner for the two of us, and so I resorted to short-order cookery that produced something quick and agreeable for Kathleen and then something quick but different for me, with her being quite finished before I sat down.

But when it came time to go to bed in earnest — no; it was two hours past bedtime — I could not go to sleep, because I had rallied, now excited by the book that I had been reading all afternoon. Worse, I had taken Lunesta too soon, so that when I finally turned out the light, I could tell that it was no longer active. (Lunesta is an unsual drug in that it makes its presence noticeable by extremely slight absences. So I dared to take another, which worked right away, it seems; I have no further memories of fretting.) By now it was nearly midnight. Nearly midnight! I’d been turning in by ten at the latest for most of my stay here, at least when there were only one or two other people in the house. I blamed the whole cockamamie day on Trollope. Well, on Orley Farm. When I finally put the book down (and this was before the second Lunesta), it was in the middle of one of the last of those clotted, Greek-tragic scenes between Lady Mason and Lucius, the son for whose benefit she perpetrated the terrible forgery, and the son whose headstrong mismanagement of his fraudulent inheritance has triggered, at the beginning of the novel, a renewed and more deadly interrogation of his claim. As it happens, I cannot remember what becomes of Lucius in the end; it is one of the many little details that I have forgotten in the fifteen years since I read Orley Farm for the first time — details that are turning out to be a delight to rediscover. Lucius Mason is a good man but not a likeable one, and, no doubt because of his education at a German university, not an English gentleman. I have a bit more than 150 pages to go, which means that I have read nearly 650, almost half of that number yesterday.

At the end of the afternoon, the clothes dryer gave out. It croaked in a whisper when we tried to turn it on, to dry the umpteenth load of sheets and towels from the weekend. We contacted the genial landlord. I hoped that (as indeed turned out to be the case) the machine was simply overheated, having been put to constant use on an extraordinarily humid day, but my heart did sink, remembering how the last week of last summer’s stay (in the little house that we can just make out across the marsh that separates Ocean Beach from Robbins Rest) was spoiled by an stove that didn’t work because the propane tank had been knocked over by the hurricane, and no one would come and fill it on the Labor Day weekend.


My grandson is in a phase of clinging to his mother, of needing to know where she is at all times. I don’t know how much longer this phase is going to last, but I hope that I’m not being merely optimistic when I say that I expect it to wind down soon. It’s my impression that Will grasps that his baby days are really coming to an end, and that he is about to become a “big boy,” which is to say the very littlest kind of boy but an embryo autonomous male all the same. Because he is so tall — and his head, his mother tells us, it too big to put through necks of T-shirts that otherwise fit him — it is easy to forget that he is just a bit older than two and a half. Still a toddler, but probably for not much longer. If it were not wildly fanciful to think so, I would almost say that he is reaching for his mother all the more needily because he senses that he is about to stop reaching for her at all.

This is especially interesting to watch for me because it was at Will’s age that I suddenly had a sister, and not an infant sister but a nine month-old sister. Not a baby that slept all day by any means, but a blue-eyed, curly-haired cutie who laughed in the bathtub. I have always known that I did not take her arrival very well. A few years ago, an aunt who has since passed away told me that because “my nose was so out of joint,” she and her sister took me, for a week, up to a cottage that they had rented in Bedford. I remember the cottage (possibly from a later visit, although I don’t think so); it was a simple wooden house, with little or no interior plaster, and a bathroom that was always, but not unpleasantly, damp, and the very sharp soap that stood by the sink. Most of all, I remember a collection of glass vessels of the deepest ruby and cobalt hues. They caught and glowed with the light that filtered in from a window that may have overlooked a lake, and they deposited a permanent impression of beauty, and of the hopefulness of beauty, as arguably my first distinct memory.

I do not claim to have been just like my grandson. But suppose that I, too, was going through his phase when, without the warning of a pregnancy (and possibly without any warning at all, since the adoption of my sister, unlike mine, was contested by her birth family), my mother became distracted and unavailable. I am far beyond feeling sorry for myself at this point, but I am stirred afresh by the naive wrongheadedness of the world in which I was brought up. How could they have done what they did? They did not attend to little things like human development as honestly as we do, or as rigorously as Will’s mother does. They were, like all Americans after World War II, wishful, and ready to try anything that would create the appearance of happy, God-blessed prosperity. This appearance required stable homes with children, and as for doing their part, my parents had the help of organizations founded on the belief that unwed motherhood was an evil that could be solved by abduction (an abduction that my sister’s grandparents appeared to have resisted, unsuccessfully). The abduction almost always had the nominal consent of the mother, but I do not think that we today would place much value in that consent. My mother got her daughter, already a genuine darling, at the very moment when her son was not quite ready to be a little boy. It was the best that could have been done.  

Gotham Diary:
5 September 2012

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

As I walked by the roaring sea last night, I wondered, what is the idea of order at Key West? What is that “blessed rage for order” of which Wallace Stevens speaks? The waves breaking alongside me were convulsive, unlike the Gulf Coast surf at Key West, where, unless a hurricane were raging, it is difficult to imagine

The grinding water and the gasping wind.

I remembered the line near the end,

Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles

It is an order that transcends human ideas of orderliness. The very word “order” assumes here an immense scope, as in the Linnaean sense of “the order of primates.” It is a kind of modernist, post-human order, but, in its gorgeousness — Stevens’s poetry — quite anti-modern.

Walking to the beach this morning, to take some photographs, I listened to the wind in the pines and considered a reflection that will go into Inventory: As a boy, I was aware that the lives of top corporate executives (of which my father was one) was strangely protected, as if by an impalpable bubble, from the general inconveniences of everyday life, and also that there was much more to the acquisition of power than the display of merit. What I did not have the intellectual equipment to realize at the time was that this world replicated in many respects that of the courts of the ancien régime. The men in the offices on the top floor submitted to an occasionally belittling competition for influence in exchange for accommodations of understated luxury. This extended from excellent secretarial services and cars and drivers to emergency repairs in their homes, not to mention flights on company planes that, among other things, obviated the need to check in at the airport and wait in a lounge. These men plugged into a network of executives at other companies — masquerading as golfing partners — in which arrangements could be made for the enhancement of their families’ lives: tickets to the symphony, interviews for children’s summer jobs. There was really only one unbreakable rule: this courtly system must never be spoken of. Best not even to think of it.

Well, I thought all of that in less time than it takes to say “courtly.” The wind gasped, and I had another thought: like most thinking people prior to the Nineteenth Century and the infection of Romanticism, I believe that mankind is the most interesting thing on earth. I went a little further than that, this morning, listening to the grinding water just beyond the dune that I was about to climb; I felt the deadly-cold senselessness of a planet as complex as ours, spinning through the millennia, without a conscious mind to appraise it. And I immediately felt the warm necessity, in the earlier days of our consciousness, of conceiving divinity. There must be gods, powers also endowed with consciousness. Eventually, there had to be a God who had created everything, several thousand years ago, a Supreme Being encompassing Creation from or within — the prepositions break down here — a zone of uncreated quintessence. I don’t feel such a need; it is enough for me to know that mankind is gradually learning how the world works, with, lately, an emphasis on how mankind works. I don’t ask for meaning beyond that. I don’t believe that I would be capable of understanding it. Nor anyone else alive today.



Gotham Diary:
4 September

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012


The house is emptying as I write. As I am emptying along with it (but only to the point to seeing people off at the ferry terminal), I can write no more at the moment. But I shall be back.


And now it is just Kathleen and I at the house. After a bleakly wet morning, the sky is patching blue, and the sun may appear before too long. More rain is promised for tomorrow, but Kathleen and I are not out here to get tan. We’re both thinking how different things are this year. Last year, after Megan, Ryan, and Will left on Labor Day, the joy went completely out of the house. (It didn’t help that we’d lost our propane — necessary at that house for cooking — in Hurricane Irene.) This year, the weather was just as melancholy, but we’re both huddled over our computers with quiet enthusiasm. On the whole, everything went better this summer. Partly, of course, we were lucky. There are thousands of ways in which a seaside holiday can be derailed. Partly, we knew what we were doing, and what to expect. I think that it’s also the case that Will has become familiar with saying goodbye to us — and by that very familiarity knowing that he will see us again soon, if not always in the same place.

Although the skies are clearing, the pressure remains low, and the humidity high. The air is far from breezy. I shan’t be very eloquent.


At dinner one night, someone who is not the clearest of thinkers insisted that everyone has the right to his own opinion. Regardless, that is, of the quality of that opinion. I meditated upon this, feeling that it must be wrong — that, indeed, there can be no hope for civil society if it be true, at least in the sense that the speaker intended. What is clear is that no one has the right to dictate anyone else’s opinion. No one and anyone are absolutes in that formula, to which no exceptions can be made. But it is no more true that anyone has the right to a stupid opinion than it is that anyone has the right to get drunk. It may be that no one has the right (in the ordinary course of things) to prevent a friend’s going on a bender, but to speak of a right to get drunk — it is, rather, a liberty. The quality of any modern, post-authoritarian society depends almost entirely upon the prudent exercise of liberties. We cannot all be getting drunk all the time. As Americans, we tend not to. But we also cannot all entertain stupid opinions — opinions that are self-serving in the short term rather than self-interested in the long. And that, unfortunately, we are indeed inclined to do. Every citizen has a hallowed right to vote, but no citizen has a right to exercise that right by electing demagogues who do not have the nation’s best interests at heart, or by throwing up his or her hands and failing to vote altogether.

As you can tell, I’ve been reading Trollope a lot.

I’m having no trouble keeping up with my daily allotment of Orley Farm chapters. The forgery case is handled with as much sensational trembling as Trollope’s good sense will allow. Samuel Dockwrath reminds me — I’d forgotten! — how central the question of being a gentleman is in Trollope’s fiction; Dockwrath is irredeemably not a gent, while the bashful, barely grown-up Peregrine Orme unmistakably is. Madeline Stavely is one of the most appealing (to me) of Trollope’s maidenly heroines, and that goes a long way toward mitigating the creepiness of his insistent philosophy about women, which, by the way, he sets forth in a concise paragraph while introducing Madeline.

Madeline Stavely was at this time about nineteen years of age. That she was perfect in her beauty I cannot ask the muses to say, but that she will some day become so, I think the goddesses may be requested to prophesy. At present she was very slight, and appeared to be almost too tall for her form. She was indeed above the average height of somen, and from her brother encountered some ridicule on this head; but not the less were all her movements soft, graceful, and fawnlike as should be those of a young girl. She was satill at this time a child in heart and spirit, and could have played as a child had not the instinct of a woman taught her the expediency of a staid demeanor. There is nothing among the wonders of womanhood more wonderful than this, that young mind and young heart — hearts and minds young as youth can make them, and in their natures as gay, — can assume the gravity and discretion of threescore years and maintain it successfully before all comers. And this is done, not as a lesson that has been taught, but as the result of an instinct implanted from the birth. Let us remember the mirth of our sisters in our homes, and their altered demeanors when those homes were opened to strangers, and remember also that this change had come from the inward working of their own feminine natures!

This is very romantic — at best. I cannot imagine Jane Austen saying anything so thick and general. It’s all there: the instinct, the automatic, almost unconscious surrender to propriety — and the very questionable notion that ladylike behavior is inborn. Trollope does not work through to reality; his theory can’t account for the numbers of very unpleasant young ladies who appear spontaneously in well-born homes. In Sophia Furnival, the clever barrister’s daughter whom that lady of ladies, Peregrine Orme’s widowed mother, regards as “not quite real,” we have everything that could be demanded of a lady, except heart, but this is no surprise, given her own mother’s background in the wild frontier between St Pancras and Bloomsbury! Trollope could be — is “snob” the word? Probably not. He shared a convinced belief, widespread among the genteel in Victorian England, in the virtue of birth and position. In Trollope’s cosmology, a Lady Diana Spencer — amiable but shallow — could not occur.